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banner Monday, 2 October, 2000, 16:39 GMT 17:39 UK
Tories believe they can win
Tory leader William Hague and shadow cabinet members
William Hague: come on down
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

The Tory faithful have gathered for their annual conference declaring they are out to win the next election - and they appear to believe it.

On the opening day of the rally, the Bournemouth International Centre has witnessed a spectacle that at times looked like a meeting of some bizarre revivalist cult.

One simple message has been hammered home time and again - "Labour has been found out, we can win."

Last year similar sentiments also won rapturous applause - but only because the representatives wanted to look like they believed it, and were being polite.

No one really thought they had a cat in hell's chance, but they had to keep the faith during their walk in the wilderness.

This year it is different. Tony Blair's disastrous year has given party activists new heart and, even after Labour' post-conference revival, they are looking at polls suggesting the next election will be a real fight.

William Hague started it all on the eve of the conference, claiming the race was now wide open.

Party chairman Michael Ancram followed through with his opening address in which he told the Liberal Democrats - who have targeted Tory constituencies - that his candidates will take back 30 seats.

He even went so far as to challenge Tony Blair to call a general election now.

Over excited

Then there was the announcement that 50,000 party members had backed Mr Hague's new draft-manifesto with an Albanian-style majority of 98.8% to 1.2%.

The 500 or so who failed to back him will presumably now be subjected to a programme of re-education.

As is often the case with these things, people got a bit over excited and the usual opening rally will rank amongst the more embarrassing of conference moments - and that's including Peter Lilley's previous attempt to sing.

Suddenly the revivalist rally turned into a cheap game show with MPs, shadow cabinet members, would-be MPs, Uncle Tom Cobley and all being asked to 'come on down' to the platform.

As each one was pushed forward they were greeted with clapping, foot stomping and cheering.

The only thing missing was Jim Davidson to whip them up into a frenzy - he was there, but keeping his powder dry for a later appearance.

Serious policies

And all this took place against the backdrop of a set which appeared to have been created out of Lego and corrugated plastic sheeting and is either defiantly minimalist or just downright tacky.

It wasn't all showbiz, of course. Hot on the heels of Mr Hague's pledge to more than match any pensions increase offered by Labour, he unveiled new plans to regenerate inner cities.

Critics suggested these were no more than re-heated proposals first tried by former Tory minister Michael Heseltine - now consigned to the fringes of the party.

But it was all part of Mr Hague's attempt to widen his party's appeal and once again portray the Tories as the true "one nation" party.

Former prime minister John Major underlined the need for the party to widen its appeal when he told a fringe meeting it had to be "inclusive" and reach out to the disadvantaged.

It is a message that already underlies much of what will happen during the rest of this week and which, Mr Hague believes, will put him on course for an election victory.

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01 Oct 00 | Conservatives
Hague: All to play for
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