Dirty little war of innuendo that Tories launched at Woodward

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Indy Politics

At 12.05pm on Saturday the pagers of 300 Labour MPs vibrated in unison with a message saying: "Shaun Woodward has left the Tories to join New Labour. He can no longer support the increasingly right-wing policies of the Tories. TB [Tony Blair] says it shows New Labour is the One Nation party in British politics."

At 12.05pm on Saturday the pagers of 300 Labour MPs vibrated in unison with a message saying: "Shaun Woodward has left the Tories to join New Labour. He can no longer support the increasingly right-wing policies of the Tories. TB [Tony Blair] says it shows New Labour is the One Nation party in British politics."

As the centralised, disciplined Labour machine trumpeted the news, a punch-drunk Conservative Party could only resort to spin-doctoring. Tory chiefs knew they would be harmed by Mr Woodward's defection, but resolved to limit the damage by blackening the wayward MP's character.

The order for the fightback came from William Hague. He was enraged by Mr Woodward's four-page resignation letter, which included an across-the-board attack on Tory policies. Mr Hague detected the hand of Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair's spin-doctor, a charge denied by Downing Street yesterday.

"If he had gone quietly, more in sorrow than anger, we would have reacted very differently," a Tory official said last night. "But he became a Labour stooge and launched a full-frontal attack. We couldn't just take it lying down."

The Tory counter-attack took its cue from Mr Hague's reply to Mr Woodward, which told him he had resigned "for reasons not of integrity or of principle, but for your own careerist reasons".

The Tory campaign operated at two levels. The public one was led by Mr Hague and Michael Ancram, party chairman, who accused Mr Woodward of lacking "candour and honour."

A second, behind-the-scenes effort sought to question Mr Woodward's character as well as his motives.

While the bombshell defection dominated the front pages of Sunday newspapers, their inside pages described Mr Woodward's lavish lifestyle, stemming from his marriage to Camilla Sainsbury, the supermarket heiress. A Tory frontbencher told The Sunday Times that Mr Woodward had his "butlers, labradors, two stunning homes and lives like a lord."

The Sunday Telegraph was told by a "senior Tory" that Mr Woodward had offered Mr Hague the use of his Oxfordshire house for policy seminars this summer because he said he was "the best leader the party had ever had".

What most upset Mr Woodward was the main front-page story in The Mail on Sunday , which said that he had "lashed out" at "gay smears" by anonymous Tory sources who had falsely claimed that he had been blackmailed into quitting the party by militant gay-rights campaigners.

"It was horrible; we suspect the Tories encouraged the Mail to pursue this avenue," a friend of Mr Woodward said yesterday. "They were desperate to get the words 'Woodward' and 'gay' into the same headline."

Conservative Central Office said it had nothing to do with the story, pointing out that Westminster had been buzzing with rumours about Mr Woodward's private life since he was sacked as a Tory frontbencher for opposing the party's support for Clause 28, which bans councils from promoting homosexual lifestyles.

But a journalist said: "The Tories were slow off the mark compared to Labour, but from midday on Saturday there was an orchestrated Tory campaign to smear Woodward. Every paper was given a different bit of dirt to suit its own market."

By yesterday the Tory papers had had time to polish more pieces about Mr Woodward's life. As The Daily Telegraph put it: "Shaun Woodward is a barmaid's son who danced with the Princess of Wales, married an heiress and lives the high life on her millions. To his friends he is a man of principle but to his enemies he is a social climber from a modest background who was dazzled by money, power and glamour."

The former chancellor Lord Lamont of Lerwick told The Daily Telegraph that Mr Woodward had warned at a 1997 Spectator magazine lunch of the dangers of electing Mr Hague as Tory leader because of allegations about his private life. "Woodward went on and on about how Hague could not be leader of the party because he had a gay past," said Lord Lamont. Mr Woodward strenuously denied making such remarks.

In the Daily Mail Edward Heathcoat Amory, a former colleague of Mr Woodward at Central Office, described his spell as director of communications as a "failure" and added: "It is notable that he has not denied the unsubstantiated allegations of a bisexual past."

The Sun filled its front page with pictures of Mr Woodward's sister, who started life as his brother and has had a sex- change operation. "We didn't know about her until we read the paper," said a Central Office insider.

Tory officials said much of the "personal stuff" about Mr Woodward came from journalists rather than the Tories. One said: "There is no dirty- tricks campaign. But we can't stop Tory MPs talking if they are approached by journalists; a lot of people are very angry that he betrayed us."

Tory sources said the Hague-led political attacks on Mr Woodward paid dividends, pointing to hostile editorial comment about the MP in The Daily Telegraph, Sun and Daily Mail.

But the personalised campaign appalled some former allies of Mr Woodward on the Tory left. "The real lesson of this affair is just how the leadership's knee-jerk condemnation of Shaun indicates just how little they really understand what is going on," said Ian Taylor, MP for Esher and Walton. "Instead of saying we have made mistakes when we lose people like Shaun, the party spent their time vilifying him. This reflects so badly on it. To sensible, moderate people it just appears to show the Conservative Party is exactly what Shaun has criticised it for being."

Another MP said: "I thought Hague's letter to Woodward was awful. It betrayed his petulance and lack of judgement."

Last night Labour criticised the Tory offensive against Mr Woodward, saying: "The campaign speaks for itself. If Central Office is behind it, it says something about the nature of the party today."

However, the Woodward affair begs the question: would Labour have acted any differently if the boot had been on the other foot? Labour's Millbank headquarters, with its Excalibur computer database, is adept at churning out embarrassing skeletons from the cupboards of politicians, including Labour ones when necessary. "By Labour's standards we still play the game as gentlemen but we are starting to catch up," said a Tory source.