As the party launched another bout of frantic introspection in the wake of last week's by-election defeat and rumours of further possible defections, Labour launched a calculated appeal to Tory MPs "with a conscience" to follow the Stratford MP, Alan Howarth, by joining the Opposition.
Tory backbenchers on the pro-European, One-Nation, left wing of the party suspected in Westminster of being potential defectors queued up to issue public denials that they had any such plans. But they also took the opportunity to make it clear they expected the Prime Minister to draw a line under his pledge not to enter a single currency without a referendum and to make no further concessions to the right on either Europe or domestic policy.
Andrew Rowe, Tory MP for Mid Kent, denied categorically that he had ever had the remotest intention of leaving his party but added: "I have little doubt the Tory party will go over the cliff or it will come back to the centre ground where I live."
Another left-of-centre MP said he was enthusiastic about the positioning of the Labour leader, Tony Blair, but was not prepared to let down his loyal local supporters by defecting.
Peter Temple-Morris, a leading light of the Macleod Group joined Mr Rowe and their colleagues Hugh Dykes, and Tim Rathbone in denying that they had any plans to defect. "For the 150th time, I have to say that I am a Conservative, and that I will remain a Conservative."
He and other alleged potential defectors were portrayed "like some sort of rogue's gallery that gets stuck up in a Wild West sheriff's office ... As far as I know ... there will be no more defections this side of the election. And we all better get on with the job of winning it."
Donald Dewar, Labour's Chief Whip, said last week's by-election defeat was "the end of the road". He added: "I am appealing to Tory MPs with a conscience to leave the Government benches and join the opposition to a government which has totally lost its way."Reuse content