A government lawmaker has defected to the opposition just days before the embattled Conservative Party begins its annual conference in the worst shape since dumping Margaret Thatcher five years ago.
Alan Howarth, 51, is the first Conservative ever to switch to the left-of-center Labor Party.
His move reduces Prime Minister John Major’s majority in the 651-seat House of Commons to only five, leaving Major vulnerable to parliamentary defeat before national elections must be held in May 1997.
It underlines the division within the Conservative Party, which has governed since 1979, and Labor’s success in moving to the center under new leader Tony Blair.
Howarth, a former government minister, said Saturday he quit because the Conservatives have moved to the right.
“The poor in Britain have not shared as they should have done in the growth of the nation’s wealth, and are made to feel the object of indifference or even contempt by too many Tories,” he said in his resignation letter.
“Rather than heal the divisions in our society, the Conservative Party seems intent on deepening them.”
Howarth said that up to 40 other Conservative lawmakers shared his concerns about the direction of the party, but he doubted others would quit.
Major said he profoundly disagreed with Howarth’s views.
“Nothing will distract us from the task ahead,” Major said in a statement Sunday. “We have an election to win and we intend to win it.”
Major has long been under assault from the right wing in the Conservative Party - in July he won a back-me-or-sack-me confrontation with them, resigning his party leadership and winning it back.
But Howarth’s defection was the first serious public dissent by the party center, dismayed at what they see as Major’s pandering to the right wing with talk of cuts in welfare spending, clampdowns on payments to the unemployed and anti-European rhetoric.
It cast a new cloud over the fourday annual party meeting starting Tuesday. The Conservatives have trailed Labor by more than 20 points in public opinion polls for the last 18 months and now are at record lows.
Major had hoped to regain the momentum at the conference, and his Cabinet ministers promised Sunday a succession of policy announcements and initiatives to entice back supporters, particularly middle-class voters feeling insecure about jobs.