Yes, Mr Howard acted ruthlessly, but the crime merited the punishment

If you are a senior officer, as Mr Flight was, you cannot betray the poor bloody infantry on the eve of battle

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It is all so sad. Howard Flight is an admirable fellow. After making a lot of money in the City he could have made even more, or given himself over to pleasure. Instead, driven by an ethos of public service, he worked hard to become a Tory MP and then threw himself into the grind of opposition.

It is all so sad. Howard Flight is an admirable fellow. After making a lot of money in the City he could have made even more, or given himself over to pleasure. Instead, driven by an ethos of public service, he worked hard to become a Tory MP and then threw himself into the grind of opposition.

Mr Flight has an interesting mind. His politics are easy to define. Though much of the public is still not convinced that such a creature exists, he is a generous-spirited free-marketeer.

Not that the latest degringolade will help to reassure the public that free-markets are compatible with social generosity - let alone essential for it - as Howard Flight would rightly argue. Even so, when I heard that Michael Howard was likely to take the Tory whip away from Mr Flight, my first instinct was to protest. Surely that was excessive: a cruel and unusual punishment.

In the course of Friday, I was reluctantly persuaded otherwise by two incontrovertible arguments. Over the years, the words "rage" and "fury" have been debased by headline writers - though not on The Independent - trying to describe life's milder irritations. Yet no other words would convey the reaction of many Tory candidates who were fighting to win marginal seats. For several weeks, they have been delighted by the Tory campaign. They felt that at last they were receiving full support from the party at the centre. Then came Mr Flight. If you are a senior officer, as he was, you cannot betray the poor bloody infantry on the eve of battle.

Nor can you betray your commander-in-chief. Mr Howard has absorbed the poll data. He knows that one of the big issues in this election is trust. A lot of voters have come to distrust Tony Blair. But they are not yet ready to trust the Tories. That is why Mr Howard has been stressing a simple message: that is he only making promises which he will honour.

As for the so-called £35bn cuts, the Tory message is equally simple. Mr Howard believes that every time the Blair government spends a pound of taxpayers' money, it is wasting 7p, which amounts to £35bn a year. The Tories propose to eliminate that waste. They would use the money to finance higher spending on health, education and other important services; to reduce Government borrowing - and to cut taxes, by £4bn.

Despite the apparent magnitude of the £35bn figure, that is a modest proposal - and a credible one. It would be hard to find many voters who do not think that the Government is wasting 7p in the pound. The Tories have also been successful in making their point to the commentators. Labour's attempt to claim that Mr Howard would cut £35bn from vital public services has got nowhere. This struck at Labour's strategy - for Tory cuts have always been the Goebbelsian big lie at the heart of their campaign. Without it, they were floundering, until Mr Flight's remarks.

That was why Mr Howard felt it necessary to be ruthless. If Mr Flight had merely said that he disagreed with party policy, it would have been enough to fire him from the front bench. But in Mr Howard's view, if a member of the front bench team says in effect that the party has a hidden agenda and is not being straight with the voters, there must be an unmistakably clear repudiation, even if a harsh one.

It is harsh. I can image what poor Mr Flight and his family must now be feeling, with their world turned upside down in a few hours. Mr Flight has devoted time, energy, money, heart and soul to the Tory party to have it all crumble to dust and ashes because of a few words at a private dinner. It is so undeserved and so unfair.

That said, politics never has been fair. The sentence may be harsh, but when a leader is fighting an election, his verdict must stand. There must be un duce, una voce.

Mr Flight can hardly be blamed for his initial reluctance to accept the decision. In the circumstances, it would be extraordinary if he were able to think straight. Once he recovers that power, he will see that there is no alternative. This does not mean that his career in the Tory party is over. There is an important role for him in think-tanks, as an intellectual outrider making the case for greater radicalism.

But the Parliamentary road is now closed and cannot be reopened. Over the next few hours, I would expect him to come to that conclusion. Though he has had a blow of fate to test any man's strength of character and moral depth, he is big enough to rise above bitterness. As he begins to come to terms with the shock, he will realise that acquiescence is the only way to serve the cause which he holds so dear.

It is not yet clear how much damage that cause has suffered. The Tories have had some luck. If there were to be such an incident, it was better that it should occur before the campaign proper, over a bank holiday weekend and while Jim Callaghan's death was competing for the political headlines. But Mr Flight has enabled the Labour Party to relaunch its £35bn claim. The quicker he accepts Mr Howard's judgement and disappears from the media, the easier it will be for the Tories to counter-attack.

There are a lot of interesting aspects to the Flight affair. A couple of years ago, Labour planted a mole in Conservative central office who was feeding internal documents to the Treasury. Labour also sent an inflitrator with a tape recorder to the Conservative Way Forward dinner at which Mr Flight spoke, and has been trying to smuggle a mole into the Tories' telephone call centre.

The spies are there to collect memos or unguarded comments from 25-year-olds who work for the Tory party to give plausibility to Labour's lies about the Tories' spending plans. Cheating and lying are reinforced by theft. Labour used postal votes to steal some of last year's local government elections and is planning a similar exercise for the general election.

Such tactics used to be commonplace in British politics: see Dickens on Eatanswill. By the final third of the 19th century, however, such corruption had been largely eliminated. Tony Blair is now reintroducing it.

This will not only be the dirtiest election in modern British history. It will also be the most corrupt one since the second Reform Bill - and the blame lies squarely with the Labour Party.

Even so, there are two dangers for the Tories. The first is that they are discredited by cheating and lies, while seats which they would otherwise have won are stolen by fraudulent postal votes. But there is also a more subtle threat.

If a passing grown-up sees two small boys fighting, he does not set up a court of inquiry. He merely says: "Stop that nonsense, you two." The risk for the Tories is that the electorate, equally uninterested in guilt, will be deceived by the school sneak, Charles Kennedy.

None of that is Howard Flight's fault. But it would be his fault if he allowed his misfortune to blight the Tory campaign. He has an obligation to his party, to every Tory candidate up and down the country and to himself. He must sublimate his suffering in stoicism.

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