The Flight affair exposes the Tory leader to the charge of gross political misjudgement

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The Independent Online

Anyone who doubted the effect of the Howard Flight affair on the Tories' pre-election campaign would have been instantly disabused by watching Michael Howard trying to present the party's policies on childcare at his bank holiday press conference. All right, so childcare may not be the be-all and end-all of the Conservatives' election platform. All right, so much of what he said was derivative, to the point where he had pinched Labour's favourite term: "hard-working families".

Anyone who doubted the effect of the Howard Flight affair on the Tories' pre-election campaign would have been instantly disabused by watching Michael Howard trying to present the party's policies on childcare at his bank holiday press conference. All right, so childcare may not be the be-all and end-all of the Conservatives' election platform. All right, so much of what he said was derivative, to the point where he had pinched Labour's favourite term: "hard-working families".

But the uncomfortable truth was that none of the reporters present, and - if they are honest - probably none of the speakers, had the slightest expectation that childcare would be at the top of anyone's agenda. They were there to talk about Howard Flight and the escalating dispute between Central Office and the Arundel and South Downs Conservative Party. In one way, the whole story is ridiculous; material almost for a comic novel: the notion that sleepy Arundel, nestled in true-blue West Sussex, should have fallen out with the party leadership shortly before an election is almost past belief. In another, however, it is deadly serious - and for Mr Howard in particular, a bitter turn of events.

Before this, he and his party were widely acknowledged to have snatched the initiative from Labour. With "Margaret's shoulder" and special schools, they had the customarily confident Tony Blair looking flustered and his campaign supremo, Alan Milburn, reportedly ruing the day that he had accepted the job. The Budget did little to improve Labour's fortunes. The launch of a new poster, claiming that the Tories had plans for £35bn worth of spending cuts, went badly awry. A poll showed the Tories only 5 per cent behind. Then the Iraq war came back into the frame, with the leaked section of a letter showing that the Attorney General had indeed changed his legal advice just before war broke out. How much more trouble could Mr Blair be in?

Last Friday, thanks to one newspaper story, he was free. The report of the Arundel MP's talk of planned Tory spending cuts precipitated his resignation as deputy party chairman. He was summarily deprived of the party whip and disqualified from standing for re-election, to the distress of at least a part of his constituency party. So much is undisputed. What is in dispute is whether the bulk of the blame for the current mess lies with Mr Flight for the initial indiscretion, with Mr Flight again for challenging his removal as the constituency MP - or with Mr Howard for over-reacting.

Mr Howard stands by his response, and has little choice but to do so. He insisted yesterday, after the childcare initiatives had been dispatched, that the fault was all Mr Flight's - for suggesting that the Conservative Party was saying one thing in public and another in private. This suggestion was especially heinous because distrust and spin are charges the Tories intended to be key to their campaign against Mr Blair. Only the week before, Mr Howard had successfully parried Labour claims that he was secretly preparing massive cuts, so it was distressing to have the charge right back in the forefront of the campaign.

Still, it is hard to believe that the Tories would be in as much trouble as they are now had Mr Howard simply dismissed Mr Flight as deputy chairman and instructed him to seal his lips for the duration of the campaign. In summarily expelling him, he has upset the local party, triggered a possible lawsuit and ensured that Tory spending cuts and policy splits stay in the news. Not to have anticipated such an outcome amounts to a serious lapse of political sense.

It may be, even now, that the impact of the Flight affair is far greater on the political obsessives of the media than on the voters at large. And there are swathes of Tory opinion that will be untroubled by the prospect of spending cuts; they might well like nothing better. In the continuing battle for electoral advantage, however, Mr Howard's misjudgement will surely prove far more costly than the foolish indiscretion of Mr Flight.

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