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Monday, 20 December, 1999, 12:28 GMT
Labour hopes of Tory split

Shaun Woodward: unlikely more will follow his lead

By political correspondent Nick Assinder

There can be little doubt that Tony Blair played a blinder in wooing Shaun Woodward away from the Tory party.

And the timing was perfect, coming at the end of a desperate few weeks for William Hague which has seen his leadership severely damaged by the Jeffrey Archer and Steven Norris affairs.

Labour "spies" had been allegedly targeting Mr Woodward for weeks but stepped up their approaches in the wake of the row over gay rights. So, when the time came, he was ripe for "turning".

It was certainly a great coup for New Labour and there are even reports that another three pro-European Tory MPs are ready to jump ship.

William Hague: Attacked as too right-wing
If that happened, the prospect of a serious split in the Conservative party - similar to the Labour rift when the "gang of four" walked out to set up the SDP - would look realistic.

But ministers have been banging on virtually since the day after they won the 1997 election that there were senior Tories ready to come over to their side.

A key part of Tony Blair's beloved "project" was to create a new centre left grouping that included the Liberal Democrats and disillusioned Tories.

No surge

But it has not happened. There have been defections - Peter Temple-Morris and Alan Howarth - but there has not been the great surge many had predicted.

More importantly not a single senior figure, such as Kenneth Clarke or Michael Heseltine, has crossed the floor.

They may both have taken non-government jobs handed out by the prime minister and be ready to stand alongside him on the Britain in Europe campaign, but they have shown absolutely no sign of wanting to join New Labour.

And, even if a few more backbenchers crossed over, it would still take a big hitter to turn the crisis into an obituary for the Tories.

When Mr Howarth and Mr Temple-Morris jumped ship, their actions caused ripples for a few days, but the storm eventually died down.

Unless there is now a surge of defections, or one of the big names joins Mr Blair's team, the same will happen with Mr Woodward.

And, despite Mr Blair's delight at humiliating Mr Hague, there is little sympathy for turncoats amongst most Labour MPs.

Many see them either as opportunists or politicians lacking in real ideology.

Swift promotion

That will not necessarily stop them from winning jobs in a New Labour government.

Mr Howard is now a junior minister and many expect Mr Woodward will also win swift promotion - despite his claims there was no enticements from Mr Blair.

Alastair Campbell: said to be spinning for Woodward
Meanwhile, Mr Woodward reads from the New Labour script - which most believe was provided to him by Alastair Campbell - and uses every opportunity to claim the Tory party has become irredeemably right-wing.

This is exactly the message Mr Blair wants voters to hear. His great success was in seizing the middle ground from the Tories and the best way to stop them regaining any of it is to paint them as an extremist party.

Mr Hague will, of course, have to take a lesson from the last few days.

Some senior Tories have used the incident to warn him that he should not drive the party any further to the right.

When he first came to office he made numerous speeches which claimed he would unite the Tories and ensure the party was inclusive and caring.

And it has mainly been his hard-line policy on Europe which has seen him branded as a right winger.

He is now coming under intense pressure to shift his emphasis back again.

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See also:
19 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
Fallout grows over Tory turncoat
20 Dec 99 |  UK
Heat on Hague, say papers
19 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
New questions over Hague leadership

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