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Friday, June 19, 1998 Published at 12:40 GMT 13:40 UK

UK Politics

Conference speech marked new tone for Tories

Party reform was key at last October's Tory conference

William Hague took over the leadership of the Conservative Party one year ago. BBC News online's Nick Assinder assesses his first 12 months in the job:

Robin Oakley on Hague's conference debut
Last October, shell-shocked Tories gathered in Blackpool for their first conference since their devastating election defeat - and they were looking for a future.

It was up to their young new leader, William Hague, to give them a fresh vision and revitalise their flagging spirits.

[ image: First party conference appearance]
First party conference appearance
Until then he had probably been most famous for a previous conference appearance years before when, as a schoolboy, he delivered a barnstorming, Thatcherite speech which delighted his audience.

He needed to pull off something similar this time and, when the conference ended, most party members and observers thought he had probably done it.

In an end-of-conference speech which redefined what Conservatism was about, he attempted to throw off the sleaze-ridden and divided image of the "old" Tories and set his party on a new course.

Reform and renewal

Hague outlines plans to make Tories "fit to govern" at the party conference
He said the "vultures" had come to Blackpool to pick over the carcass of the party, but, far from being dead, the Tories had embarked on reform and renewal that would make them fit to govern at the next election.

One of the key themes for his appearance was "tolerance" and he was determined to repaint the party as "caring" and "inclusive".

He told the conference the party had to accept that social attitudes had changed and that they should be tolerant of individual lifestyles such as lone mothers, unmarried couples and, by implication, gay couples.

But he also delighted the traditionalists by declaring: "I personally believe that it is best for children to be brought up in a traditional family. That means their mother and their father in their home."

He also had to draw a line under the past and the old Tory party which had just been resoundingly rejected by the voters. The aim was to distance himself from the sleaze and division that had dogged the party under John Major.

In an uncompromising message to the party faithful, he told them: "Our Parliamentary party came to be seen as divided, arrogant, selfish and conceited."

Past errors

He also started the now-universal habit of apologising for past errors, telling the conference that taking Britain into the doomed European exchange rate mechanism had been wrong.

"Looking back, I believe that going into the ERM was a great mistake, and I'm sorry we did it," he said.

"We should have the courage and confidence to say so. It did enormous damage to the credibility of our party."

[ image: Just an ordinary guy]
Just an ordinary guy
During his speech he also used a theme that was to be the mark of his leadership - William Hague as "the ordinary bloke."

He made much of his upbringing in Yorkshire, his comprehensive school education and the family soft drinks business, saying he was not one of those politicians who looked at Britain "through a pair of binoculars from inside the M25".

By the end of the conference he had succeeded in consolidating his grip on the party and giving it a new "caring" gloss while, at the same time, showing humility at the election rout.

He had launched reviews of the party structure and policy in a bid to shed the old dogmas and modernise the Tories.

And he had dismissed lingering fears that he was too young or inexperienced to take on Tony Blair.

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