Must Major drown in dirty blue water?

Alan Howarth and his former leader agree on decency and fairness. But other Tory voices are louder; There is a struggle going on for the soul of the Tory party
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Death and treachery; let no one say the Conservative Party fails to get its conferences off to a flying start. However tasteless it may be to mention this, Lord Home's timely demise gave the Tory leadership a chance to deflect attention from the loss of one of its MPs to Labour. Alec Douglas-Home, unlike Alan Howarth, was ever the party servant.

Yet it is the ostracised Howarth who has more to say to the Conservatives now. Home was the courageous underdog who nearly, very nearly, revived the Tories in time to stop Harold Wilson. In 1963-4 he almost achieved what John Major did for real in 1990-2. But in almost every other way, he is a politician from another time. "One Nation" Conservatives cannot claim him. But the post-Thatcher right-wingers are not his type of Tory, either; for one thing, he was far more radical than they on constitutional reform.

One word only links the former prime minister with the Howarth story. It's "decent". Despite Lord Home's involvement in Munich and his sharp- elbowed behaviour in fighting for the premiership when Macmillan retired, Tories here in Blackpool, milling round the bars, were speaking, quite rightly, of his decency. Major, too, is often described first as decent. It is a word that matters to the Tories, as to the country as a whole. Yet Alan Howarth has made the contemporary Tories' loss of "decency and fairness" his central justification.

He has thrown down a moral challenge. He told the Observer that policies aimed at the young unemployed were "moral garbage". He spoke about a mood of harshness in the party and, later, said that he had spent three years urging it to "come back to its better nature". Only after despairing for one nation Toryism did he throw away a 23,000 majority and many friendships.

Leftish Tory admirers wish he had resigned his seat, too; his party workers are understandably furious.

But Alan Howarth has hardly gone for the soft option; he has chosen ostracism and loneliness in the Commons, with only a small chance of returning as a Labour MP, and has been rewarded by having his sanity publicly questioned. Brian Mawhinney has a curiously mirthless smile and the Conservative Party when angry is not a pretty sight.

But then, it never has been. The real question is whether the party has changed or whether Alan Howarth has. After all, it is hard to argue that Major himself is a harsh, punitive, indecent or immoral politician as compared with Margaret Thatcher, whom Howarth happily supported. Major is perhaps the single Tory MP who has been as passionate as Howarth himself about the evils of racism. His rhetoric has been as concerned with classlessness, opportunity and decency as any Conservative leader.

It was revealing that Major believed that had Howarth discussed his worries "with his friends" he wouldn't have left the party. Major thought of himself, however loosely and vaguely, as one of those political friends, a liberal Tory among other liberal Tories. He must have been genuinely shocked.

But Howarth had seen something about the Conservative Party that the Prime Minister - either because he is too close to the daily action, or because he chose not to see it - has missed. The party has toughened its rhetoric and sharpened its policies over the past couple of years to an extent that has depressed and even sickened a number of leftish Tory MPs.

On crime and punishment, Europe, welfare and immigration, it has been radicalising itself, importing modish ideas from Washington and seeming readier to blame the poor than to help them. At its rawest, this could be called the B-special agenda - boot camps, borders and blacks. A shiver ran through politics last week when Michael Howard's odd announcement on immigration policy happened to coincide with hysterical reporting of the OJ Simpson verdict, including a despicable front-page article in the Daily Mail. You didn't have to be a professor in semiotics to decode it.

As the party struggles to find ways to outflank Labour, the attraction of nasty populism, however carefully camouflaged, is intense. No wonder one nation Tories are uneasy. Xenophobia is fashionable. Hysteria about Europe is still spreading in the party and there's a mood of growing intolerance about society's failures, reflected in the attacks by both main parties on beggars. This is not the country at ease with itself they all hoped for.

In the party, the intellectual force is still with the right. One senses that it is less Major whom Howarth has left than Michael Howard, Peter Lilley, Michael Portillo, John Redwood and the rising Thatcherite tide of 1992 intake MPs and 1997 intake candidates. He is defecting from them, and from his vision of the Tory party as an organisation subsiding into brutish nationalism and social coercion. Defection is the worst sin at Westminster; but it's hard to avoid the thought that if a few more MPs were a bit less loyal to the inanities of party orthodoxy, politics might be more popular.

What is harder to accept is Howarth's belief that the Tory left has been finally defeated and that one nation Conservatism should now be laid peacefully to rest alongside Lord Home of the Hirsel.

Though some of the party's most eminent names on the centre-left, from Douglas Hurd to Tristan Garel-Jones and Chris Patten, are retiring soon or in exile, the truth is that one nation Tories are still heavily represented throughout the Government. It is a comment on the state of the leadership that a leftish Tory has to defect to get a hearing, but even so, a party that sports Ken Clarke, Gillian Shephard, Sir George Young, Stephen Dorrell and Alistair Burt can hardly be described as a homogenous clutch of neo- Thatcherites.

There is a struggle going on for the soul of the Conservative Party between harsh populists and agonised Tory reformers; but there always has been. It has been going on for a century and a half, moulding a party that has been intellectually incoherent but electorally triumphant.

Up to now. If the Tories fight a savagely populist election campaign now, blaming, punishing and warning, it will end with their moral destruction, as well as their political defeat. There would be dirty blue water between the parties but because Middle Britain prizes decency and fairness even more than the flag, the Conservatives would sink there.

What Howarth's defection ought to do for the Prime Minister is to jolt him into intervening in this fight. It is in his interests to do so, for a gap has opened between his own precious reputation for decency and his party's image in the country. He would be horrified to think people suspect him of preparing for an indecent and xenophobic campaign; but people do, for quite good reasons.

Howarth's message is simply that Major and the Tory left have lost the country's attention, and that the voice of quiet patriotism and moderation is coming from Labour instead. Defectors are hard people to listen to. But if Howarth's message made a difference to the Tories, if they really thought about what he was saying, he might, even at this late stage, be doing his old party a greater favour than his new one.