As the conference season nears its climax with John Major's speech, Glasgow and the Liberal Democrat conference seem years away. Alan Howarth's decision at the weekend to take the fast train from Conservative ranks to new Labour without stopping at the Liberal Democrats must make Paddy Ashdown even more concerned about the significance of his party. As he's travelled the country, gathering in pomposity all the while, the Liberal Democrat leader has been ramming home the message that it's not good enough for his party to be perceived as irrelevant. It must be perceived as distinctly irrelevant.

For his conference speech Paddy seemed to have taken a big leaf out of Harry Enfield's book, adapting the catchphrase of one of Harry's favourite characters ("Is that what you want? Is that what you want? 'Cos that's what'll 'appen). This raises the prospect of other leaders following the trend, from Tony Blair on Tory economic policy ("You don't wanna do it like that, you wanna do it like this") to Mawhinney and Heseltine as the Self-Righteous Brothers, venting their spleen on defecting MPs ("Oi! Howarth! NO!")

Meanwhile, at Brighton, the combined effect of Tony Blair's speech and the leadership's firm grip on proceedings induced a form of trance in the Labour Party from which some may have been surprised to wake up on Saturday morning to discover they had voted to keep Trident. The conclusion must be that Robin Cook believes the party is so close to power that what is required at this stage is a futile gesture.

Blair's speech - a version of which, at a risk of repeating myself, is available at 11.45 tonight on Channel Four - was impressive, though the style of his delivery was bizarre. However, I couldn't help feeling that John Prescott's triumphal battle-cry of "Move aside - we're on our way!" brought back uncomfortable memories of Neil Kinnock's "we're all- RIGHT!" in Sheffield in 1992. I suppose in some ways they are all Right now, but I'm not sure that's what he had in mind.

While Labour's conference backdrop had changed to a sort of Tory grey (white-with-a-hint-of-capitalism) from last year's strange green (Eau de Neil?), a few activists still managed to infiltrate Newsnight's Brighton Debate last Monday to remind us how things used to be. Confronted with one ranting demonstrator barracking from the aisle, even Paxman looked rattled, momentarily dropping his superior presentation style in favour of the more demotic "Look, chum ..." As a chastened Eric Cantona returned to centre stage at Old Trafford, the prospect of ooh, ee, Jerem-ee jumping into the audience and drop-kicking an over-enthusiastic fan in the one- and-nines looked a distinct possibility.

Alan Howarth's defection inevitably adds to the perception of a hapless Conservative Party struggling to keep on course (where to, by the way?) as "events", and its own MPs, continue to conspire against it. As the party machine hauls itself wearily into action on yet another damage limitation exercise, the image irresistibly forms in my mind of the Prime Minister gamely attempting to restore morale by scrapping his conference speech in favour of a moving rendition of "Three Wheels on my Wagon".

As it is, Mr Major's widely quoted reaction ("I believe [Mr Howarth] will come to see his decision as a mistake") conjures up a more threatening picture. Imagine the scene: the Prime Minister, his face obscured in darkness, gently stroking the fluffy white cat on his knee. "You disappoint me, Mr Howarth. We had expected better. It saddens me greatly to have to do this to you." (Raises ringed finger.) "Mawhinney, see that our friend is suitably disposed of." Step forward the party's chief henchman to dismiss the whole affair with characteristic scorn as "Much Ado About Nothing".

Notwithstanding that "Loves Labour's Gained" might have been an equally appropriate choice of play. "Much Ado" at least provides the Tories with two possible interpretations of Mr Howarth's behaviour. "He hath a heart as sound as a bell, and his tongue is the clapper; for what his heart thinks, his tongue speaks," (Act 3) or, alternatively, "Sigh no more, Ladies, sigh no more. Men were deceivers ever; one foot in sea, and one on shore, to one thing constant never" (Act 2). No prizes for guessing which view the party chairman will be favouring this week.

Dr Mahwhinney's comments ("Mr Howarth's reasoning was not only profoundly wrong but bizarre") might equally be applied to the reaction of Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, First Secretary of State and MP for Henley-les-deux-Eglises, who said that Howarth was "out of touch with what the public wants". If he really believes that, the already impressive space between Mr Heseltine's new desk and the world must be even bigger than we thought.

As even John Redwood, MP for Pot and Kettleblack, attacks Howarth's disloyalty, and others of the Tory faithful say the result will be an enormous wave of sympathy for Mr Major - a phenomenon which, it must be said, has a knack of winning him elections - I fear that we're about to see the Conservatives revert to their least attractive conference mode: swivel-eyed ministers appealing to the xenophobic and the vindictive in another episode of "It'll Be Far Right On the Night". I hope not, I really hope not.

PS. I've just watched Portillo's speech. To quote his beloved Wellington: "I don't know what effect these men have on the enemy, but my God they frighten me."

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