'This is all much ado about nothing'

In interview, Donald Macintyre gauges the reaction of the Tory chairman, Brian Mawhinney
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If anyone can rise to the unpalatable task of being the first Tory chairman in memory to lose an MP to the main Opposition party 18 months - at most - away from an election, it could yet be Brian Mawhinney. He was no doubt tempted on Saturday, as he hastily covered the Tory flank exposed by Howarth's momentous decision, to reach for something a little stronger than the Lucozade for which he has a passion. For as he prepares for this week's party conference he faces a challenge of the order that his predecessor Jeremy Hanley never faced in his worst nightmares.

The case Mawhinney laid out yesterday, on Day One of the aftershock, was typically robust. In a pointed gibe at Howarth's serial political monogamy, he sniped that Howarth had switched from Labour support mingled with admiration for the one-nation Toryism of Butler and Macmillan to deep-dyed Thatcherism, only to end up switching to Labour allegedly because the Tories had become too right-wing.

Howarth had discussed his doubts with everyone except John Major, and in the ultimate snub to the voters of Stratford he wasn't even prepared to offer himself up to them by calling a by-election.

A professedly "totally relaxed" Mawhinney told the Independent yesterday this defection would have "no effect" on the agenda the party will unveil this week - a packed series of policy announcements "which will affect millions of people in contrast to Alan Howarth's, which affects only him. He represents William Shakespeare's birthplace and this is really Much Ado about Nothing. The more we learn about the reasoning that lies behind the decision the more apparent it is that it was not only profoundly wrong but bizarre."

But hadn't Mr Howarth's decision tapped into a simmering discontent on the Tory left of which Mr Major now had to take account? Of course, Mawhinney said, there were a "range of emphases" in the Tory party, "but there is also basic agreement on the values and philosophies which we are pursuing. I heard Jim Lester [a prominent voice on the pro-European, one-nation left of the party] saying exactly that on the radio today."

Lester had said, Mawhinney added, what was certainly true, that no MP was now going to follow Howarth across the Commons floor. It was precisely because of the vigorous debate which existed within the Conservative Party that "we are setting the agenda, and that's why you started to hear echoes of that agenda from the Labour conference last week. But that's got nothing to do with this eccentric decision to join the Labour Party."

Of the central message of Howarth's defection - that Labour can now claim to be the party of one nation - he said: "The idea that by joining the party of Dennis Skinner, Tony Benn and John Prescott you are somehow promoting the politics of consensus will provoke a horse laugh through the whole country."

And no, he would not be changing a word of the speech with which he will open the conference tomorrow. The Tory chairman will not discuss the contents of that speech, but colleagues say one element in it will be a section on Europe, designed to set the Tories' nationalistic campaigning tone between now and the election. Howarth will no doubt see this as underlining his worst fears. The Liberal Democrats, Dr Mawhinney is expected to say, are the federalists, Labour Party the centralisers, and the Tories the party that believes in co-operation where it serves the UK's interests, but acting on its own where it doesn't.

Dr Mawhinney has a degree of focus unusual even among front-rank politicians. It is a quality that may serve him well in this latest crisis. He knows, for instance, exactly how to find the Opposition's jugular. He is almost certainly correct in identifying the Labour confusion over rail privatisation as the most obvious weakness of last week's Labour conference. This "was a classic example of the gap between rhetoric and reality" which it has been his job to expose for three months, a task which now acquires a new sense of urgency.

Howarth's defection - reducing at a stroke the Government's majority from seven to five - suddenly raises the spectre of a 1996 election. Can the party handle that? "We will be ready to go whenever the Prime Minister says to go."

Will they? If you ask about the number of party members or their lamentable age profile - the estimated average age of the rank and file is over 60 - he comes close to dismissing the question as an irrrelevance.He claims that membership is 700,000 to 750,000 and that "anecdotally" the experience of constituency chairmen he encounters on his travels is that "people are signing up in numbers they find encouraging."

While you can't verify these figures, of course, because there is no central membership register, the wettish Bow Group has plumped for a figure less than half Dr Mawhinney's. But he replies briskly that he doesn't have time to spend on "a lengthy analysis of historical trends of membership".

The reportedly dire state of Tory party funds is certainly not irrelevant; but here he is laconic to the point of obscurity. First, he insists that Major's success in the leadership election has helped to release a new flow of funding. "Smith Square sends out letters inviting people to make contributions straight into here. I signed such a letter soon after my arrival [in July] and it has produced the biggest response in the history of that particular technique."

Can he say how big? "No."

Since the party has an pounds 11m overdraft, with the Royal Bank of Scotland pressing for repayment, isn't it going to have a problem paying for the election? He insists that "when the time comes we will have the troops and the support and the backup and resources we need", but neverthless acknowledges: "We can always do with more money."

So are the Tories diverting their healthy running surplus of pounds 2.6m last year to a special election fund like that of Labour, which is now boasting a pounds 4.5m election fund? "The answer is that there a lot of differences between us and the Labour Party and one is that if I had such a fund I wouldn't tell you about it nor would I tell you how much is in it."

Mawhinney manages to radiate a bullish - and apparently genuine - optimism about the Tories' prospects. "I'm very confident that the instincts of the British people haven't changed. I know the instincts of the Government and the party haven't changed. And it's becoming increasingly clear that the instincts of the Labour Party haven't changed."

When he speaks tomorrow, Mawhinney will have to persuade his party, against all the odds, to share his confidence to overcome the enormous challenge the Howarth defection has posed to all three of these propositions. If he does, he will already have proved his worth as chairman.