The New Statesman Interview - Shaun Woodward

He joined a party led by Thatcher; now, he's on the other side and refers devoutly to "our founding

A politician who defects to another party is guaranteed intoxicating stardom for 48 hours. After that, an awkward obscurity often awaits. Where are the Emma Nicholsons and Peter Thurnhams who fleetingly lit up the political sky with their defections in the previous parliament?

For Shaun Woodward, the cameras clicked and Sir David Frost's sofa beckoned during the weekend before last Christmas, when he dramatically switched sides. At 41, he is the most intriguing of the defectors, partly because he is still so youthfully ambitious. Nearly all those who change parties tend to be in the middle or towards the end of their careers. Woodward is still in his first term as an MP. His ambition had already propelled him to considerable heights in the Conservative Party. When I last interviewed him, in December, he was ardently defending the candidacy of Lord Archer in the London mayoral farce. Now, as we sit in the garden of his Westminster house, he speaks of "our founding fathers in the party". He means the likes of Keir Hardie. The book Labour's Century is one of the many documents placed on a large table in his living room.

Woodward is still going through a transition. Apart from the not altogether convincing reference to "our founding fathers", he keeps his distance. He talks of "the Labour Party" and "the government". Rarely does he dare say "we" when reflecting on either. Sometimes he is quite explicit. "It would be quite impertinent for me to give advice to a party or a government when I have been a member for only six months." This, though, is partly a device to avoid mouthing any doubts in public about the direction of policy.

The calculating self-effacement is not as necessary as he believes it to be. For all the dissembling and ingenious revisionism required of a defector, Woodward has an authentic voice. It is not the voice of the current Conservative Party. For many years it was obvious, too, that he liked and admired the leading Blairites. "I've known them all for a long time. I've liked them as individuals and known them as friends. I admired the professionalism of Peter Mandelson, the way he got a grip on the communications of the party. I admired Alastair Campbell as a political journalist. My liking of Tony Blair was very different. He created a party that could deliver policies based on the values I have always believed in. I have at least as many conversations with some of these people now as we had in the past. I want to do everything I can to help the Labour Party and this government win a second term with as big a majority as it is possible to get."

Recently, his "conversations" have extended to the Treasury on policies related to the new economy. There has been contact with Millbank over tactics for the next election campaign. He is about to speak at Labour Party meetings around the country. In a minor key, this defector is becoming a player.

He claims that he first considered switching sides as long ago as 1994, when Blair became leader. "I spoke to friends in the Labour Party about it then, but I could never do it while John Major was Conservative leader." For Woodward, Major was the first Blairite. "He believed in Britain being at the heart of Europe, in creating a classless society, a nation at ease with itself, but the right wing never allowed him to lead the party."

It was Ken Clarke's failure to win the leadership in 1997 that marked the next phase of his journey. "What I most disliked about Margaret Thatcher related to her speech in which she said there was no such thing as society. It became clear to me that William Hague was resurrecting that ideology. In the 12 months before I left, I became increasingly unhappy, stuck inside a party in which I was completely isolated. Labour MPs came up to me and asked how I could stay when I was making all these speeches about the age of consent and Section 28. Last summer, I went away with my family and some close friends. Every night we returned to the same subject. It was not whether I could stay in the party, but when I could leave."

At that point, Woodward resolved to stand down at the next election as MP for Witney. He says it was the launch of the "common sense revolution" at last year's Tory conference that provoked him to act earlier. He insists now that he would have left even if a compromise had been reached over his opposition to Section 28, the ostensible reason for his departure.

"It wasn't Section 28 that was the straw that broke the camel's back. The back had already been broken. I would have left anyway over the Tory party's approach to asylum. The deaths in the lorry at Dover demonstrate just how desperate these people are. They didn't risk losing their lives so tragically in the hope that they could get a few vouchers, for goodness sake. This is far more serious than the Tories will accept. If, for example, you take action against Milosevic, the consequence will be displaced people and displaced families. We have a duty to look at them as genuine asylum-seekers. I can promise you that issue would have forced me at full speed out of the Tory party."

But has Jack Straw been any better? It is at this point that he voices his only public criticism of the government. "There is no question that we haven't used the most appropriate language. We felt far too ready to use words that were wrong. But we've recognised that this language was wrong, that most asylum-seekers are genuine. What is disgraceful is when you see the reality but still use the inflammatory language."

A defector makes the leap for several complex reasons, not all of them noble. But Woodward has a strong record on civil liberties and social tolerance. His speech arguing for a lower age of consent, which he made when he was still a Tory MP, and for which he was occasionally barracked from his own side, was an act of political courage. He has recently returned from a month in America, partly looking at the impact of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s in Mississippi. "It is in the area of civil rights where I see my political views coalescing. In Mississippi, I wanted to discover where the changes instigated in the 1960s had left black people economically, to review programmes aimed at bringing communities closer together, where kids who have been left behind are retrained. Great progress has been made, but I also realised that legislation is not everything. The climate is crucial, a moral climate where it is utterly wrong to judge someone by the colour of their skin or by their sexuality."

He also defends the government's often criticised record on civil liberties. "In 1997, we had a Conservative government that was not prepared to argue for an equal age of consent. It was outrageous, too, that the previous government did not grant an inquiry into the Stephen Lawrence murder as this government did. This government is robust on both."

There is an obvious problem with these observations. Woodward was a Conservative candidate at the last election, defending the record of that previous government. There is a problem also when he attacks the Thatcher government for "not doing much more to address the appalling consequences of the job losses in the 1980s". It was her party that he decided to join, although he insists that it was only the Major/Patten version that he found acceptable. In a recent BBC discussion, the Conservative right-winger John Bercow responded to Woodward's comments by stating: "You have no principles and not a shred of credibility."

Much more wounding for Woodward has been the reaction of some like-minded Tory MPs, formerly close friends, who do not speak to him now. On his first day in the Commons as a Labour backbencher, I happened to be having a conversation near the Commons with a Tory left-winger when Woodward stopped to join us. The Tory, a moderate and decent MP, did not say a word to him. When Woodward left, he explained: "I cannot talk to him again. He is a political opponent now. We can't just carry on discussions as if we are still old allies fighting the same battles in the same party." Woodward looked devastated.

He claims to have found such slights less traumatic than the media attacks on his family, which he believes were instigated by Conservative Central Office. The main target was his sister, formerly his brother, who had a sex change. "How could they exploit my brother, now sister, Lesley, who had obviously been going through a great deal of distress in her life? My parents, who are in their eighties, needed police protection."

He has promised his family a year of stability after what he describes as their "shared hell" in the months leading up to the defection and the drama of the event itself. His family, however, may prove to be a source of political instability in the years to come. His wife, Camilla, is an extremely wealthy member of the Sainsbury family. Conservative Central Office has already ensured that every single Labour constituency in the country has all the details of his lavish lifestyle. If he seeks a seat at the next election, Camilla's millions will inevitably be an issue.

"Before joining the party, I gave a lot of thought to whether my wealth would be a problem. But first I would point out that it is my wife's money, it is not mine. I came from a very ordinary background. Second, we have given millions away to charitable causes. You could argue that the taxman should take away the lot, but we have set up a trust in which all kinds of causes are benefiting - Childline, an information centre for schools at the National Portrait Gallery, social projects in deprived areas."

He claims to be non-committal, but I have no doubt he will seek a seat at the next election. He would like a ministerial job as well, partly to show other potential Tory deserters that there is life on the other side. This defector has no intention of lighting up the political stage for 48 hours and then disappearing into awkward anonymity.