Drama and betrayal in the home of the Bard

THE HOWARTH DEFECTION: Constituents astonished and bemused as MP's decision sends shock waves through the heart of England.
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False face must hide what the false heart doth know - Macbeth

Behind drawn curtains at the Conservative Association headquarters in the home of Shakespeare yesterday the latest act in a weekend of high drama was being played out.

Angry and shocked, the association's executive met in emergency session to discuss the defection of the their MP, Alan Howarth, to the Labour Party. Only after the meeting had broken up were the drapes pulled back to reveal, in one front room, a portrait of that other famous floor-crosser, Sir Winston Churchill.

The irony may have been lost on Don Rushton, the local party chairman, who read a prepared statement: "We are disappointed that Alan discourteously chose to reveal his decision through a Sunday newspaper and not through prior consultation with his constituency association chairman, agent or officers, with whom he has worked for many years.

"We are astonished that ... a former government minister has chosen to join the Labour Party when only a short time ago he had been so fervent in his support for John Major."

Telephone lines had been busy, he said, with calls of anger and disbelief at Mr Howarth's actions, and of support for the Conservative Party.

Debate among Stratfordians was already raging. Locals were out for Mr Howarth's blood - calling for his immediate resignation on the grounds that he should not continue as a Labour MP for an overwhelmingly Conservative seat.

In the town's pubs, the content and quality of the previous day's political performance was discussed. The lead character was variously described as "brave", "principled" and "a scoundrel who let down all those who voted for him".

However, the townsfolk agreed it was the most exciting thing to happen in their corner of England since the Sixties scandal over John Profumo, a former Tory member for Stratford. Only the tourists, maps in hand, failed to raise an eyebrow at the mention of the Government's latest political upset.

Across from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the long bar of the Dirty Duck pub was alive with chatter, and two streets away in the Vintner Wine Bar, the young staff seemed pleased, if not a little perplexed, about their town's new political status.

Verity Spencer, a 22-year-old waitress, said: "I've grown up in a Tory environment, in a Tory family," she said. "I've heard what it was like when Labour was in - with all the strikes - that information has an effect on you. Now we have a Labour MP, it has made me think, 'Well, let's have a real look at what all the parties mean'."

Elsewhere, Peter Jones, a retired Anglican clergyman, said he voted Conservative in the last election and would never consider switchingto Labour. He said of Mr Howarth's defection: "I think it is a foolish move... I don't think people will support him just for crossing over to the other side of the House.

"I don't think he has given his party the chance to make clear its policies and he hasn't even waited for the autumn Budget."

Others saw Mr Howarth's step as courageous. Andrew Smith, a shop worker, said: "I think it was right of Mr Howarth to do what he felt was correct.

"I voted Tory last time but not again. I think many Conservative voters will be affected by this."

John Vereker, the leader of the Conservative group on the county council, said he understood Mr Howarth's disillusionment with the Conservative Party but was upset not to see him try to change it from within. He said: "Quite clearly it is for Alan to make his own decisions based on what his conscience tells him. For my own personal point of view, I believe he could have achieved more from within the party than by doing this."

Stratford's Labour contingent spent the day in a temporary press office. Its branch secretary, Ann Grosvenor, said that despite the radical move, Mr Howarth might not lose quite as many friends as people were suggesting. "Our membership has more than doubled over the past year and I can tell you he would take some voters with him if he did stand as our candidate," she said.

However, she added that the likelihood of his name being on the voting sheet at the next general election was slim. "Our final meeting to decide on a candidate is on 24 October, so I don't think he really has a chance. And I think we would want him to have some sort of probationary period," she said.

Away from the political murmur of his shocked constituents, Mr Howarth spent the afternoon at his Cotswold-stone farmhouse in the village of Lower Tysoe, on the southern fringes of his large constituency.

Admiring the apple trees in his front garden, he said he had no doubts about his decision. "I feel a profound release and an exhilaration," he said.

Mr Howarth said he had many misgivings about Tory policy, but it was the stirring atmosphere of the Labour Party conference in Brighton - last week which finally made him switch allegiance.

Bidding farewell to the media yesterday afternoon he urged them to indulge in the fruits of his labour. "Help yourself to an apple on your way out." Little Tysoe then breathed a sigh of relief and continued its peaceful Sunday afternoon.

General Election 1992: A Howarth (Con) 40,251; N. Fogg (Lib Dem) 17,359; S Brookes (Labour) 8,932; R. Roughan (Green) 729; A Saunders (Ind. Con) 573; N. Twite (NLP) 130.

Mr Howarth gained 59.2 per cent of the vote, with a 33.7 per cent majority.