No wonder liberal Tories despair of their party

I suspect John Bercow has not ruled out the possibility of defecting to Labour
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The Independent Online

My interview in yesterday's Independent with the Conservative MP, John Bercow, has renewed speculation about his future. Mr Bercow outlined his concerns about the Conservatives' current policies and positioning. At the same time he praised Tony Blair and several of his policies. Is Mr Bercow about to defect to Labour?

Dissenting politicians cannot reflect in public about the possibility of changing sides. They remain in their party. If the moment comes when they decide to make a leap there will be a dramatic announcement. In that sense the subject of defections is similar to devaluation: Political leaders have to talk up the currency until the moment comes when they announce the devaluation. For obvious reasons they do not speculate in advance that they might be forced into making such a move. I suspect Mr Bercow hopes the Conservative party will move rapidly in his direction and he does not have to face the risks and trauma of defection. I suspect also that he has not ruled out the possibility of defecting to Labour.

Even so, no one should underestimate the traumas of defection. I recall talking to Sean Woodward on his first day as a Labour MP having defected from the Conservatives . As we were discussing his move on a street in Westminster his old Tory ally, Damien Green, walked past. Mr Woodward called out: "Damien, how are you?" Mr Green, normally a decent and convivial MP, walked straight past. Mr Woodward was ignored by old friends and viewed with suspicion by some of his new parliamentary colleagues.

Mr Bercow's interview is a broader reminder of the group in the Conservative parliamentary party that had once looked to Michael Portillo as its leader. Mr Portillo was fleetingly the favourite to win the Conservative leadership in the summer of 2001. The Conservatives have had two leaders since then. In my view they made a grave error when they failed to elect Mr Portillo, as they were even more mistaken in their failure to elect Ken Clarke in 1997. Mr Portillo's disillusionment is now so great that he hinted recently that he might not remain in the Conservative party after the election. He makes Mr Bercow seem like a weak-kneed loyalist.

What is largely forgotten now is that although Mr Portillo failed to win the leadership he secured a significant level of support in the parliamentary party and a fair amount of sympathetic media coverage. No one can know for sure what impact he would have had. What is clear is that strategies adopted by a sequence of leaders since 1997 have failed to make headway.

This has produced an unpredictable fluidity in British politics, especially on social policies. A fortnight ago there was an illuminating debate in the Commons about the Government's proposals for giving gay and lesbian couples the same legal rights as married heterosexuals. The best speech in favour of the Government's proposals was made from the opposition front bench by Alan Duncan. The Labour MP who followed him in the debate described Mr Duncan's speech as one of the most powerful and moving she had heard in the Commons. But several Conservative MPs passionately opposed the measure. Here is Gerald Howarth intervention opposing the Bill: "Does he understand that some of us have a deep-seated and genuine fear that setting up what Mr Duncan calls a 'parallel institution' will send out the message to the people of the country that there are two equally valid lifestyles and that one can be in a homosexual relationship or a heterosexual - many of us would describe it as normal - relationship? That message will encourage the proliferation of homosexuality".

Mr Howarth is the voice of a large section of the Tory party. It is not surprising in such circumstances that more liberal-minded Tories despair sometimes of their party.

Opinion polls and by-election results are increasingly unreliable guides to what is happening in British politics. But I have a theory that the movement of defectors and potential defectors highlights almost scientifically the prevailing trends. From the mid-1970s Labour politicians switched to the Tories. In the 1980s Labour politicians defected to the SDP. From the mid-1990s several Conservative MPs defected to Labour or the Liberal Democrats. The fact that talented Tories are even contemplating the possibility of leaving their party suggests to me that their political recovery has hardly begun.

With the near collapse of UKIP, Michael Howard has some political space. He should use it to move fast towards the centre ground where the Tories face the more formidable force of the Liberal Democrats. In his early days as leader Mr Howard focused on public services, the need for high levels of public spending in some areas. He showed also a more liberal attitude on social issues. An understandable impatience about breaking through in the polls, the pressure from right-wing newspapers and the rise of UKIP combined to propel Mr Howard in a different political direction.

By speaking so candidly Mr Bercow might have done his leader a favour, although I doubt if it will be viewed that way.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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