The Conservative Party was reeling yesterday from the unprecedented defection of one of its most respected backbench MPs to the Labour Party with a warning that between 30 and 40 Tory MPs shared his concern at the right-wing direction of John Major's government.
The timing of Alan Howarth's defection caused the maximum damage to Conservative morale on the eve of the Tory party conference in Blackpool. Ministers reacted angrily, mounting a damage-limitation exercise by questioning his state of mind, and accusing him of being "vindictive".
Some senior Conservative Party sources suggested his defection was linked to the break-up of his marriage. Alan Clark, the outspoken former defence minister, described his action as "batty". But friends rallied behind Mr Howarth, 51, a former education minister.
Mr Howarth, the Tory MP for Stratford on Avon, one of the safest seats in the country with a 23,000 majority at the last election, was given a cool response by the Prime Minister during a telephone conversation yesterday after announcing his decision to quit the Tory party, accusing Mr Major's government of "an arrogance of power".
After their talk, Mr Major said: "I profoundly disagree with his analysis of the Conservative Party but nothing will distract us from the task ahead. I'm very sorry at his decision. I believe it was a mistake and I believe he will come to see it as a mistake."
The defection - secured after weeks of careful negotiation with Tony Blair and the Labour leader's close allies - cuts the Prime Minister's technical majority in the Commons to just five votes and risks forcing Mr Major to go to the country in a general election before he planned. Mr Howarth ruled out the possibility of resigning his seat and forcing a by-election.
John Prescott, deputy La-bour leader, hailed it as a devastating blow for Mr Major on the eve of the Tory conference. He said: "Alan Howarth is a well-respected and senior member of the Tory party who has now made it clear he can't stomach the party lurching further and further to the right."
In an exclusive article for the Independent, Mr Howarth says: "With the honourable exceptions of a handful of beleaguered ministers and backbenchers, today's Conservative Party has effectively given up on the basic ethical responsibilities of government: to promote fairness and to hold society together."
There was no sign of any further defections, but several Tory MPs in the One Nation group contacted by the Independent yesterday confirmed they shared Mr Howarth's misgivings. Tim Rathbone, a senior "One Nation" Tory MP, said: "I am sorry he took that step. I completely understand his concerns. They are the concerns which are shared by an awful lot of people. It might be a dramatic shot across the bows of those people who advocate a further shift to the hard-edged right-wing policies."
"It is a symptom of the strain which is going on in the centre-left of the Conservative Party," Peter Temple-Morris, leader of the Tory Macleod group, said. "This is an exceptional event, but I respect him for it."
Jim Lester, a former employment minister and close ally of Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, confirmed that 30 to 40 MPs shared Mr Howarth's concerns, while rejecting his support for Labour. But some on the left of the Conservative Party were privately contemplating the break-up of the party after the election. A Gallup poll for the Daily Telegraph shows Labour's lead before its conference to have increased from 28 to 30 per cent. One prominent Tory MP said he was ready to join the Liberal Democrats if there was a realignment of British politics.
Tories on the left said Mr Major's leadership contest had secured his own position, but the drift to the right was inexorable and would accelerate under his successor, whom they expect to be Michael Portillo.
Mr Howarth's friends accused the Tory leadership of abandoning the centre ground of British politics to Mr Blair. They warned ministers against using this week's conference to stake out a more right-wing agenda. Mr Howarth says in the Independent: "Conservative backbenchers' desperation to ingratiate themselves with the voters through tax cuts conspire to prevent the investment we need in public services."
Exclusive: My story, by Alan Howarth
'At long last we have a party that is both committed to social justice and tough-minded about the practicalities of government. That is why I have joined new Labour ...'
A defector writes, page 19
PLUS: Tory schisms laid bare; Disillusion spreads, page 2
Redwood on that letter; A town in shock, page 3
Alan in Arthur's seat: Leading article, page 18