Deserter Howarth finds it's lonely being a rebel without a seat

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WHEN Gerald Kaufman launched his book How to be a Minister at a Westminster reception last week, one of the guests needed no instruction on the pros and cons of ministerial office. In a corner of the restaurant, sipping a glass of red wine was Alan Howarth, the Labour MP who most recently had use of a ministerial Rover - albeit in a Tory administration.

Yet, more than 15 months on from a high-profile switch of party, Mr Howarth does not cut a happy figure, unsure that he will even have a seat to fight at the next election.

An attempt to test the water last year in the Wentworth constituency ended in a rebuff. Of the main Labour constituencies vacant, most - including, Sparkbrook and Small Heath, Don Valley and Bethnal Green and Bow - look almost impossible prospects and the others (like Newport East) are highly unlikely.

The Labour leadership remains determined to secure a seat for Mr Howarth and the rumour is that Tony Blair will persuade one senior colleague (the names of Derek Foster and Robert Sheldon are mentioned) to stand down on the eve of the election in exchange for a seat in the Lords. With a such a late vacancy the party would have the power to impose Mr Howarth as a candidate. But even then questions might remain. Would the activists take kindly to such a manoeuvre?

The experience of Mr Howarth, and two fellow defectors from the Conservatives, demonstrates the deep nature of the party divide and the acute difficulties of anyone trying to escape them. It is a lesson not lost on the Tory pro- Europeans who might have been tempted to follow Mr Howarth across the floor of the House.

Ever since Dick Taverne, the right-wing Labour MP took that route, the fate of defectors has been a difficult one. Of the three who have left the Tories in this Parliament, two have gone to the Liberal Democrats: Emma Nicholson and Peter Thurnham, but neither intends to contest the general election. That is because neither could hope to fight a winnable Liberal Democrat seat.

All have had a difficult time socially in the club that is the House of Commons. Ms Nicholson recently told colleagues how she was deliberately shoved hard in a crowded Commons corridor by one of her erstwhile fellow MPs. One former colleague still on speaking terms with Mr Howarth describes conversations as "stilted". Another is more blunt: "He's seen rather like the individual wandering around the enemy camp trying to get a meal just before the battle."

With the more hardened activists things are even more pronounced. Mr Howarth, educated at Rugby School and Cambridge and co-author of a book on Field Marshal Montgomery, hardly fits automatically into a Labour Party mould. True, he is hardly the only public schoolboy - his party leader is one. But, as one MP put it: "He's an intellectual, a thinker. That may make him a hero in Islington but in many parts of my constituency he's seen as the man who voted to close down the mines and the shipyards, who was a minister in those governments and then jumped ship."

A Conservative MP added: "In here, in the Commons, there is contact between people from different parties. That's one thing. Out there, among the footsoldiers and party workers, it's different. They are used to a general diet of animosity to the enemy, blown up into an ideological purity. The simplicity of their outlook defines them."

This practical difficulty makes winning a seat very difficult, the main reason why other pro-European and left-ish MPs have failed to jump ship. At one time or another the opposition parties have hoped to lure the likes of Edwina Currie, Hugh Dykes, Jim Lester, Quentin Davies or Peter Temple- Morris. But all have made it clear that they are staying put.

There are other reasons, too. Culturally, all are Tories who have devoted much of their lives to fighting Labour with the backing of predominantly loyal workers in their constituencies. Moreover, some of them actually enjoy their status as rebels and media-celebrities within their party. One minister said: "Peter Temple-Morris left the Conservative Party a long time ago, but did so by staying part of it. If you have missed out on being a minister - not through lack of ability - why not pursue your own interests? I suspect Hugh Dykes would rather be somebody in the Conservative Party than a nobody in another party".