Election '97: Blair parades high-profile switchers

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The Independent Online
The buzzword among Labour apparatchiks yesterday was "complacent", as in "we must not be", but being complacent was not the same as rubbing the Tories' noses in it. So Tony Blair did.

Travelling by helicopter to Gloucester, the marginal he visited on day one of the campaign, the Labour leader wheeled out not one, but two high profile switchers to remind the Conservatives of their dwindling support.

Alan Howarth, former Tory MP, joined Mr Blair on his People's Platform at Gloucester Civil Service Club - which had apparently dropped its neutrality on cue from Sir Robin Butler the day before - and introduced another switcher; not just any old voter, but Gareth Jenkins, the man who would have been his Tory opponent in the safe Labour seat of Newport East.

Mr Blair looked slightly uneasy sharing a platform with two such turncoats, but the Labour supporters cheered supportively, demonstrating their charity towards reformed sinners.

Mr Jenkins, a 31-year-old estate agent, decided to resign as Tory prospective Parliamentary candidate for Newport East last October before Mr Howarth was selected by Labour.

"I had been getting uneasy about the Tories for some time - it seemed they were moving too far to the right and away from the ordinary man in the street," he said. "I have three children, and as they have grown I have realised that more needed to be done in the areas of health and education."

However, he said his mind was really made up when he had to produce an election address which informed his fellow Welshmen and women that he was opposed to the formation of a Welsh assembly.

"He's a great asset and we're proud that he has come over to us," said Mr Howarth, who made his conversion in October 1995. Mr Jenkins said he would like to stay in politics but accepted that he would first have to prove himself to the local Labour Party, some of whose members are not taking to Mr Howarth.

As for Mr Jenkins, his desertion has not added much to the gnashing of teeth at Smith Square. Asked whether Conservative Central Office had tried to persuade him to stay, he replied: "Er, no, not really. They haven't even called me."