Diary

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."

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
Sport
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
i100
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering