Tories 'off the rails' says quitting MP

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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

David Howell, the fiftieth Tory to announce his intention of quitting at the next general election, yesterday accused the Government of going "off the rails" over foreign policy and becoming "obsessive" about Europe.

Mr Howell, a senior Tory and chairman of the party's One Nation group of centre-ground MPs, declared that Britain was "too busy running after the French and Germans, and being terrified they are going to pull some trick and we are going to be left behind".

Mr Howell's criticism came 24 hours after the fervently pro-European former prime minister, Sir Edward Heath, pledged to support a future Labour government in Commons votes if it was "doing the right thing" on Europe.

The the 59-year-old MP for Guildford since 1966, a former Cabinet minister and current chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, yesterday insisted his decision to quit was not another chapter in the trend of disillusionment felt by most departing Tories.

"The short answer to why I am standing down is that I have done it for 30 years. It is time I went to new pastures and give my constituents a chance to have a new MP," he said.

The departure of one of the Conservative Party's most trusted elder voices will none the less fuel Mr Major's anxieties over the scale of the planned exodus of senior Tories. For this stage of a parliament, an unprecedented number of MPs have said they will not stand again.

One minister admitted yesterday that there were worries that it was not only MPs in their seventies and sixties who were bailing out, but younger members in Mr Howell's league. Mr Howell insisted that there was a stock of able candidates coming in.

He also disagreed with the suggestion by some outgoing colleagues that the House of Commons had been devalued by the culture of the media soundbite. "I think the Commons is more interesting than 30 years ago," he said.

The MP is not among those unhappy about the tightened Nolan rules on outside interests, which could see some MPs' outside earnings evaporate. "The only lobbying I have ever done is on behalf of my constituents," Mr Howell said.

"The fact is that I spent 14 years as a minister, followed by 10 years as a committee chairman. I was not the kind of former Cabinet minister who jumped out out into some job. I did provide some aftercare."

Would he have continued to serve for another parliament if a dramatic change in the polls had suggested the Tories could win another election? "I don't think so," he said.

Mr Howell, a pro-European latterly tinged with scepticism, conceded that some power had been lost to Brussels, but insisted there were signs that some of it was coming back.

He warned on BBC Radio 4's The World at One, however, that the Government had become too "Euro-obsessed". Europe had become such a dominant issue that Britain had taken its eye off the ball, he said.

Four-fifths of Britain's commercial and financial interests lay outside western Europe with vast income coming in from overseas assets and financial services, he said. "I have felt in recent years that foreign policy was coming a bit off the rails, and we seem to have lost confidence, or an ability, to count our own enormous strengths and deploy them."