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Last Updated: Friday, 30 September 2005, 11:28 GMT 12:28 UK
Is everyone a Portillista now?
By Ollie Stone-Lee
BBC News political reporter

Francis Maude
Mr Maude: not embarrassed by the rule change vote

It has taken four years, another election defeat and the retirement of their champion from the political stage but now it seems everyone is signed up to the "Portillistas'" agenda.

That appears to be the view of Conservative chairman Francis Maude, who in 2001 ran Michael Portillo's doomed leadership election campaign with its modernisation mantra.

As the Tories head for their Blackpool conference next week, Mr Maude is acting as a kind of leadership referee, ruling himself out of the running and refusing to declare his backing for any of the contenders.

But does he think the battle for the agenda pursued by Mr Portillo's campaign has been won?

"I think broadly yes," he replies. "I'm hearing all the leadership contenders saying exactly that really. That we need to be - to use that well overused phrase - inclusive, open to everybody, One Nation."

'In tune'

Mr Maude says the main achievement of the debate which was rumbled within the party since its election defeat in May is that everybody now recognises the party needs to change.

There is agreement that "just vaguely believing that somehow we can carry on and hope that it will all turn out right is just not on - that's fantasy".

He says there will "subtle differences" on the prescription to the problem but there is common ground that "we need to show we are in tune with modern Britain, not at odds with it".

Michael Portillo
Michael Portillo made his modernisation pitch in 2001
The party needs to rebuild in cities outside London so it can show it is capable of governing the whole country. And it needs to become more involved with ethnic minority communities.

Mr Maude says the Tories made progress in selecting more candidates from ethnic minorities at the last election but have not made nearly enough advance in choosing women candidates.

"Part of that is that we don't have very many younger women members," he explains.

Only 16% of party members are under-45 - the common age group for potential candidates - and only 1% are women under-45.

The Tory chairman does not favour quotas or short lists to counter the problem, describing them as "absolutely the last resort".

Instead, he argues the answer is simply to recruit many more potential women candidates.

Beauty contest?

Mr Maude says next week's Tory conference in Blackpool will be the culmination of the debate on the party's future direction.

But with personalities in the spotlight in the hunt for a new leader, can the conference really be any more than a beauty contest?

The contenders all recognise that personal attacks would very counter productive

"I don't know what a beauty contest means really..," he says. "To the extent that various leadership contenders will be setting out their stalls, saying why they want to be leader, I hope they will do that."

He brushes off suggestions that instead of a showcase for the way the party is changing, the conference could spotlight another spate of Tory infighting.

"There has not been any of that so far," says Mr Maude. "All the contenders have been treating each other with respect and courtesy."

'No embarrassment'

He says all the contenders will, if asked, praise their rivals as talented people.

"They all recognise, and I think their teams recognise, that personal attacks would very counter productive and would be not well regarded by the party who will expect its next leader to be able to command unity and broad support."

The leadership contest is now hitting its stride now the rules for the race have at last been set.

Iain Duncan Smith
'The risk of repeating the Duncan Smith era problems are very, very small'

An attempt to give MPs, rather than grass roots Tory members, the final say in choosing the new leader foundered this week.

MPs backed the idea but votes from local Tory chairmen fell short of the 66% needed to push through the rule change.

After the vote, leadership contender David Davis said: "Clearly it is an embarrassment that the party rank and file turned down a proposal from the leadership of the rank and file - from the chairman - but that's by the by, we have to deal with that."

So, is the chairman embarrassed? "Not remotely", he says. "The proposal we put forward secured the support of more than 60% of people who voted."

And while some fear wrangling over the rules has given Labour a "free hit" this summer, Mr Maude says the delay in starting the contest was only party due to the rule change - and mostly to allow time for a proper debate within the party.

Recipe for discord?

The leadership contest will now be held under the existing rules, with MPs whittling down the field to two candidates before a vote of all party members.

Before the rules vote, Mr Maude said that system was a "recipe for institutionalised discord" and risked a repeat of the "miserable" Iain Duncan Smith era, where the leader is not the choice of the majority of MPs.

But Mr Maude now says he does not think that will happen.

"What I said was there was a risk... It has not completely disappeared but I think it is a very, very small risk."

Unity appeal

One way of eliminating the risk entirely would be for two candidates to pull out if one contender had a clear lead in the final vote of MPs.

The party chairman refuses to be drawn into whether that would be a good idea, saying: "It will be for them to make their minds up."

Nor will he suggest the kind of tests candidates should be judged upon.

But he warns Tory members: "Don't make the new leader bear the burden of changing the party. It will require much more than just the leader to change the party's fortunes.

"It will need the whole party to show that we are in tune with modern Britain, that we're capable of governing the whole of the country in a way that benefits all the country."

The Blackpool conference is the first real test of whether it really is all change for the Tories.

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