Tory schisms laid bare by shock decision

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Senior Conservatives reacted to Alan Howarth's defection to the Labour Party with almost universal shock and anger yesterday, though there was genuine sympathy and respect for him among MPs on the left of the Tory Party.

Brian Mawhinney, the Conservative Party chairman, dismissed the defection as "eccentric" and "bizarre" while Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, appeared to suggest there was a need to be concerned about Mr Howarth's state of mind. "There is a certain vindictiveness in the choice of the date of the announcement. What seems to me to be rather a vindictive decision is out of character with his usual function.

"I am quite concerned about what I think this demonstrates about his state of mind. He is obviously going through quite a turbulent time," she told Sky News.

Other senior Cabinet members joined in the condemnation. The Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, said Mr Howarth had lost his political way, and the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, said the MP was "out of touch with what the public want".

Alan Clark, the outspoken former defence minister, said: "The kindest thing you can say about Alan Howarth is that he is batty. It is an act of complete treachery."

However, perhaps the person most aggrieved at being kept in the dark over his decision - save for the officials of his own constituency association - was the Prime Minister.

Labour was gleeful at its propaganda coup, with John Prescott, the deputy party leader, describing it as a devastating blow for John Major on the eve of the Tory conference in Blackpool, on which so much depends. Mr Prescott said: "Alan Howarth is a well-respected and senior member of the Conservative Party who has now made it clear he can't stomach the Tory party lurching further and further to the right."

Derek Foster, Labour chief whip, said: "I am confident that the Parliamentary Labour Party will gladly accept Alan Howarth's application for the Labour whip and welcome him to their ranks.

"We all recognise that this is a very significant conversion, especially from a man of proven ability who will not have taken his decision lightly," he said.

Speaking on the BBC's Breakfast with Frost, Mr Mawhinney said he believed Mr Howarth should immediately stand down and fight a by-election - something the the MP has no intention of doing.

"The people of Stratford-on-Avon will form their own conclusions about a man who won't offer himself to them," he said. "It seems to be a bit of an eccentric decision, doesn't it? He made an announcement that affects him and deprives the people of Stratford of their representative that they voted for.

"The idea that Alan is doing his electors some sort of favour by moving from supporting this Government to aligning himself in the Opposition with Dennis Skinner and Tony Benn and John Prescott - frankly, that is bizarre."

The public services minister, Roger Freeman, said he had not been surprised by the defection. "Alan Howarth has been increasingly isolated on the backbenches over the last couple of years," he said. "I respect Alan's views, but he's been out of step with the Parliamentary Conservative Party for some considerable period of time and so [the] announcement didn't come as a surprise to me.

"This is a very human problem for him. He clearly felt very strongly that he had more sympathy with the Labour Party. His own views had changed. I think the honourable thing for him to do is resign and stand again."

But backbench colleagues on the left of the party were sympathetic. A former minister, Jim Lester, said: "Alan has made some very penetrating speeches over a very considerable period of time. One shares many of his instincts as far as the Conservative Party is concerned but I am surprised he should join the Labour Party."

Sir Edward Heath, the former Prime Minister, urged other one-nation Tories not to follow Mr Howarth. "What I would say to all those who think the same way in the party is our job is not to leave the party but to do everything we possibly can to persuade the party to carry out the policies which we used to have," he said.

Among others, there was some understanding, although no indication of any further defection plans.