Veteran turncoat has no regrets

John Horam, once a Labour minister, then an SDP member, and now a Conservative minister, feels `at ease' in his latest role, he told Colin Brown
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Indy Politics
John Horam is content to be a turncoat. "As Winston Churchill said, it is better to change your mind than be wrong all the time," he said. "We all change our minds as we get older and more experienced. I have changed my mind."

Having become the first minister since Reg Prentice to have served in both Labour and Conservative governments, with a stint in the SDP on the way, he said: "I believe in doing what is right. I am certain the Conservative government is doing the right thing."

Mr Horam, 56, celebrated his birthday at home yesterday before spending his second day at the Cabinet Office. "It was a surprising birthday present," he said.

The Under-Secretary for Transport in the Callaghan Labour government in the 1970s returned to the despatch box to fill the vacancy caused by the sudden resignation over an extramarital affair of Bob Hughes, Under- Secretary of State for Public Service and Science.

The Prime Minister telephoned Mr Horam at home on Sunday. "He said that Bob had resigned and therefore there was a vacancy. He said he was looking for someone with experience and I was someone with previous experience in government."

Within 24 hours, Mr Horam was answering questions for his department in the Commons. Standing at the despatch box again, facing his former friends, held no terrors for him, he said. "I felt quite relaxed about it. I felt in control of the situation."

Some may have been thinking it might be a short return to office, with Labour 40 points ahead in the opinion polls, but Mr Horam betrays no doubts.

He is convinced he was right to desert the Labour Party in 1981 rather than stay and fight for change. "I am delighted to be part of a Conservative government which I feel has got a superb economic record ... as opposed to being a minister in a Labour government which tried to duck all the problems and got into the tragic farce of the Winter of Discontent."

Such confidence is music to John Major's ears. Mr Horam's appointment is intended to show the Tory rebels that promotion is reserved for the true supporters. Mr Horam impressed the Prime Minister when he won a standing ovation for a free market speech in the keynote economic debate at the Tory party conference in 1990. Mr Major, then Chancellor, welcomed Mr Horam to the party.

Mr Horam said he has felt "at ease" with the Conservatives with no sense of betrayal for Labour. He was Labour MP for Gateshead West from 1970 until he joined the SDP in 1981. He left the seat in 1983, joined the Tories in 1987 and took the safe Tory seat of Orpington in the 1992 election. He passes off his SDP period as a "stage in my political development when I was rejecting Labour''.

Having made the transition from Labour to Tory, he is a free-market Thatcherite on the economy, and admits to being unhappy with the tax increases imposed by Kenneth Clarke. "Sure. That is a great pity. I look forward to the day when we get them down again."

Mr Horam is unconvinced by the changes wrought on Labour by Tony Blair, whom he dismisses as "a new mask" for the old Labour Party.

And what will he do in his new job? Not only has he changed parties, he has moved from backbench critic to minister under fire. He was a member of the Public Accounts Committee which attacked the Office of Public Service, which he now represents. He feels there was plenty in the all-party report which he can adopt, but it went too far in criticising the work of agencies.