Signals that were there for all to see

THE HOWARTH DEFECTION: The moral question: Government attitudes towards social issues proved to be decisive in the dramatic move to Labour;

Political Correspondent

The Conservative Party swung frantically into the biggest damage limitation exercise in recent political history yesterday. The tactic was basically to smear; the method, to question Alan Howarth's state of mind.

But the notion of an overwrought man taking leave of his senses looks pretty far from the reality. The 51-year-old MP is one of the most intelligent, assiduous and thoughtful. Moreover, the conversion - or certainly the realisation that he could no longer support today's Tories - has been long been discernible.

Elected as MP for Stratford-upon-Avon in 1983, the blue-chip seat once occupied by John Profumo, he was one of the dozen founder members of the Thatcherite No Turning Back group that year. He served - apparently contentedly - under Margaret Thatcher from 1979 to 1992. But while a staunch supporter of keynote Tory policies such as opted-out schools and student loans (along with transforming polytechnics into universities as a minister) his affinity with fellow No Turning Backers such as Peter Lilley, now Secretary of State for Social Security, and Michael Forsyth, Secretary of State for Scotland, was limited.

From the early 1990s, an unease with the direction of the party began to reveal itself in parliamentary debates with a relentless regularity, and later, in newspaper articles. He voted against his pet hate, the Jobseekers Bill, voted for Labour's amendment in the debate on the Nolan committee recommendations, railed against restrictions on income support for mortgage payments and abstained on a Labour Opposition Day debate on funding the teachers' pay rise. On one fabled occasion, a Labour MP invited him to cross the floor.

The birth of a disabled child, now 10, in the mid-1980s may also have sown the seeds of a growing interest in social issues, while remaining "dry" on the economy and committed to low inflation. Last year he joined Labour MPs in a Trafalgar Square rally to protest at the Government's rejection of a backbench disabled rights Bill.

He had used his first geberal election vote to help return Harold Wilson's 1966 Labour administration to power. By the 1974 election, the middle- class Westminster School master, had reverted to type by voting Tory. But by last year he was warning in a newspaper article on the eve of the Tories' Bournemouth conference that they must stop pandering to the "retributive" right.

In a sign of readiness to embrace what a forewarned John Prescott, Labour deputy leader, portrayed as "one nation Labour" at Labour's conference on Friday, he added: "Competitiveness, discipline, independence and responsibility - goals identified by Margaret Thatcher and now common to all parties - need to be pursued in ways that appeal to moderate opinion and the British sense of fairness."