Back at Westminster, a pact is sealed

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The Independent Online
MARY BRAID

At high noon, three days after they admitted a clandestine courtship and declared their mutual regard to the world, politics' happiest couple emerged into the sunshine yesterday to face the press.

Big Ben had just done chiming when renegade Conservative Alan Howarth MP - treacherous toerag or courageous, conscientious politician, depending on your point of view - and Tony Blair, the Labour leader, made their first joint appearance outside Westminster.

It is hard to match Mr Blair's split-face grin but Mr Howarth, MP for Stratford-upon-Avon, almost managed. Seldom in the history of unlikely unions has a pair seemed quite so delighted with each other.

Former Tory minister Mr Howarth, sporting a red tie with the faintest of blue patterns, said he had no regrets about his decision to defect from the Tory party. This week's gathering of the faithful in Blackpool had merely vindicated his action. He even suggested former colleagues might soon follow. He had just been talking to one Tory MP who had been "deeply shocked" by events and talk at Blackpool.

"Yesterday's proceedings confirmed my worst fears," said Mr Howarth. "We saw Dr Mawhinney opening up with an attack on local government and some unfortunate remarks about Asian minorities. Then we saw Michael Portillo indulging in an extraordinary tirade of anti-foreigner emotion. It is exactly what I warned against. This retreat by the Tory party into narrow, aggressive insularity will be a catastrophe for the country."

His lasting impression was of Mr Major sitting "hunched and wan" while Michael Portillo did his "great dictator bit". At the end Mr Major had been forced to lead the applause, a prisoner of his right-wing.

Mr Blair was pressed on whether Mr Howarth could expect to return to the House of Commons as a Labour MP? And there was a hint of the Trojan horse; how could the Labour leader expect his party to trust such a turncoat?

Mr Blair stood by his man. It was "absolutely clear that the Labour Party has taken Alan to its heart," he said. And he was sure he would be carefully considered for selection.

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