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Wednesday, 4 October, 2000, 15:16 GMT 16:16 UK
Inclusiveness difficult for Tories?
Michael Portillo and Steve Norris
Portillo backed up by Norris on tolerance
Michael Portillo's bid to make the Conservatives more inclusive of gay people may have uncomfortable repercussions within his party.

Just hours after his conference speech, top Tories were already struggling with the issue - and not exactly privately.

So far I have not heard anybody in the party call for the outlawing of alternative lifestyles

Ann Widdecombe
Mr Portillo's call for inclusiveness won the backing of party vice-chairman Steven Norris and also of Tory MP Gerald Howarth, who said that Conservatives had "always been tolerant" and inclusive of gay people.

But Mr Norris immediately branded Mr Howarth's statement "naive and downright stupid", saying: "It is clear that the party he is describing is not recognised by anyone who is gay."

Mr Norris also branded Tory support for Clause 28 - which bans the "promotion" of homosexuality in schools - as "homophobic nonsense".

Plain speaking

Ann Widdecombe - the highly religious shadow home secretary - then weighed in.

Listening to Michael Portillo was like reading or having read back one of the many e-mails I sent him and the leadership over the time I was a member of the party

Ivan Massow
Miss Widdecombe - who takes her reputation for plain speaking very seriously indeed - said: "I have never quite been sure what is meant by that phrase social tolerance.

"So far I have not heard anybody in the party call for the outlawing of alternative lifestyles.

"What I believe is that the state should have a preferred model, that it should promote the traditional family."

Equally, the Conservative Party had always paid "social attention" to minority groups, Miss Widdecombe said.

"As long as I have been in the Conservative Party we have been trying to promote more candidates from the ethnic minority, we have been trying for example to get more in Parliament," she said.

"I think you are looking for a fault-line where there is none."

Tolerance claims a 'cynical ploy' - Massow

The issue sparked harsh words from leading gay Tory turned Labour defector Ivan Massow.

The millionaire businessman dismissed Tory assertions of tolerance as a "cynical" ploy.

"Listening to Michael Portillo was like reading or having read back one of the many e-mails I sent him and the leadership over the time I was a member of the party," Mr Massow told BBC Radio 4's World at One programme.

"It is all very well having these words and the sentence `Why should these people respect us if we withhold respect from them', which is a fantastic sentiment.

"You only need to look at what was said yesterday about their new policy ideas - extra benefit for married mothers, showing complete disregard for any other form of family unit or the things that the Tory front bench spokesman said about women doctors.

"Even looking at the party itself and noting that only 10% of their candidates are women and hardly any of them have winnable seats, this is not something you can change by standing up because you need the soundbites on a particular day."

Zero tolerance

The boundary between tolerance and permissiveness is clearly a difficult one for the Conservatives who promote themselves as defenders of the family, protectors of the young, enemies of the criminal.

And "social tolerance" - if we ever do get a definition - will not stretch to the thousands of people in the UK who smoke marijuana.

There will be no Amsterdam-style coffee shops in London - Miss Widdecombe made that quite clear, even though Tory peer Lord Cranborne immediately broke the party line by calling for cannabis to be decriminalised.

It looks like zero-tolerance on drugs when the Conservatives get in again - and as far as gay people are concerned, the tolerance level depends on which Tory is talking.

But if the Conservatives are to convince voters that they are tolerant of minority groups such as gays it seems self-evident that they will first have to convince themselves.

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18 Sep 00 | Liberal Democrats
Lib Dems back gay legal rights
12 Sep 00 | Europe
Dutch legalise gay marriage
14 Aug 00 | UK
Drug and crime link grows
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