Blair rewards defector Woodward with campaigning role for Labour

Andrew Grice
Monday 20 December 1999 01:00

Tony Blair will reward Shaun Woodward with a special campaigning role for the Labour Party following his surprise decision to defect from the Conservative Party.

Tony Blair will reward Shaun Woodward with a special campaigning role for the Labour Party following his surprise decision to defect from the Conservative Party.

Although Mr Woodward will not become a minister, his nationwide campaigning job will worry some Labour MPs, who reacted coolly to his conversion yesterday.

But the crisis for the Tories deepened yesterday as senior figures, led by Michael Heseltine and Lord Hurd of Westwell, warned William Hague to end the party's drift back to the right by readopting the "one-nation" policies Mr Woodward accused him of abandoning.

Mr Blair hopes the campaigning role will help Mr Woodward win selection for a winnable seat at the next general election. He will leave his Witney constituency in Oxfordshire, where the Tories had a majority of 7,208 in 1997.

"The post will enable him to visit a lot of constituency Labour parties and get known," a Labour source said last night.

Labour officials said Mr Woodward would not be covered by the ban on the so-called "chicken run", which prevents Labour MPs leaving their constituencies for a safer seat.

As furious Tory leaders accused Mr Woodward of jumping ship to further his career, Glenda Jackson, a contender to become Labour candidate for mayor of London, expressed concern over his remarks that Mr Hague had rejected "the John Major party", which stood for "opportunity for all". Ms Jackson hoped that Mr Woodward's conversion to Labour's values was genuine: "The Labour Party should not be used as a vehicle for those seeking return to the perceived golden era of Majorism."

The Labour left-winger Tony Benn defied the party leadership by calling for Mr Woodward to fight a by-election in Witney. "It is totally wrong for people to treat their constituents as just agents of their own will," he said.

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP for Islington North, said there would be "some scepticism" in the party about Mr Woodward's conversion. "Footballers can transfer teams and show immense loyalty to their new team straight away. I don't think the same thing can or should apply to politics."

Although there was no immediate sign of other Tory MPs joining Labour, some left-wing Tory activists may compound Mr Hague's problems by switching sides. Mr Woodward's decision capped a disastrous month for Mr Hague and reopened the debate about the party's direction.

Lord Hurd, former foreign secretary and Mr Woodward's predecessor in Witney, said his defection sent a "considerable warning" to the Tory leadership. "If everybody who shares the kind of concerns and anxieties that Shaun Woodward had left, then the party would never be elected to govern," Lord Hurd told BBC Radio 4. "The leadership must find a way to keep these doors open for people who have anxieties about issues like Europe and homosexual rights, but who nevertheless feel more Conservative than Labour."

Mr Heseltine, former deputy prime minister, said: "The Conservative Party is a broad church and achieves most when it recognises that, and pursues policies which are broadly associated with the one-nation philosophy."

The Tory Reform Group, whose president is Kenneth Clarke, attacked the "personal abuse" heaped on Mr Woodward by the party leadership.

Mr Woodward, who was sacked as Tory frontbench spokesman on London after opposing the party's line on gay rights, described press reports that Conservative sources were making allegations about his private life as "pretty unpleasant stuff". Conservative Central Office denied the charge.

Asked on Sky News if he had a gay past, Mr Woodward replied: "If we in 1999, in our society, think that asking people questions about their gender, their race, their sexuality is a decent thing to do, then we have learnt nothing.

"This sort of delving around in order to muckrake and that sort of thing is the hallmark of a nasty society and, sadly for me, it was one of the reasons why I had to leave the Tory party."

Mr Woodward, a father of four who is married to the supermarket heiress Camilla Sainsbury, said that "no deals" about a job were struck with Mr Blair.

He said there was no need for him to fight a by-election in Witney. "At the last general election I stood on a platform that was not xenophobic, that was not discriminatory, that believed in public services, schools and hospitals. It is the Tory party that has changed in the last two and a half years."

Michael Ancram, the Tory chairman, accused Mr Woodward of lacking "candour and honour" and "rewriting history in order to damage the Conservative Party and serve his new party". He added: "We always have been a broad church - our policies are main stream."

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