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Tuesday, April 6, 1999 Published at 15:14 GMT 16:14 UK

Kitchen table: The Tories' secret weapon

Not so long ago, William Hague wanted his Conservative party to be seen as an IKEA Tullsta chair.

The signal he was sending out by choosing the multi-coloured chairs for the Tory conference in Bournemouth last year was simple: his party was modern and unstuffy (even if the chair's Scandanavian roots were a touch Euro-unsceptic for the Tories).

But the semiotics of furnishings has moved on startlingly quickly, a process perhaps hastened by pictures of Peter Mandelson reclining in a frighteningly fashionable 1,800 Charles Eames chair in his ill-fated Notting Hill pied a terre.

[ image: Out with the old - the IKEA Tullsta chair]
Out with the old - the IKEA Tullsta chair
After Mr Mandelson's fall (he resigned from the government after accepting a 373,000 loan from a fellow MP), fashionable furniture perhaps became a bit too flash; too "try-hard".

Hence Changing Rooms time for Mr Hague.
Out go the bold colours and blond wood with which IKEA has made a fortune.
In comes a second-hand kitchen table of "indeterminate brown wood", the new face of the future of Conservatism.

Last month, Mr Hague announced that in future, his party's policies would be devised with the kitchen table in mind, meaning that the sort of things people talked about over their kitchen table would be the sort of things the party would address.

Now according to newspaper reports, a five foot-long table has been installed in the foyer of Conservative Central Office to remind the party of where Mr Hague wants its focus to be.

Respect table

Raising the offensive, one source told the Independent on Sunday that in Middle Britain, it would be regarded as a "respectable" table. It was NOT the sort of thing that would be seen "in the dining rooms of Islington", the source said.

[ image: Conservative Central Office - new home to homely values?]
Conservative Central Office - new home to homely values?
The subtext is clear. Mr Hague wants to move the agenda away from the Guardian-reading dinner party circuit of New Labour's spiritual home, Islington, towards the breakfast-eating kind of people who talk over the issues highlighted by that day's Daily Mail or Daily Telegraph.

For some, a desire to focus on everyday issues will spark memories of former Prime Minister John Major's Back to Basics mantra which whether Mr Major liked it or not became a family values campaign.

For Mr Hague, this approach will mean the Tories taking up issues such as genetically-modified food, the care of elderly people, crime, public services, and taxes.

Last month he expounded this line of attack: "I grew up in a family with a small business. That is why deep within me is hostile to punitive taxation. Ludicrous, pettifogging, bureaucratic over-regulation. That is what I learned at my kitchen table."

The kitchen table as a source of inspiration is borrowed from American politics - the seed is believed to have been sown on a recent visit Mr Hague made to George Bush Jnr, the governor of Texas, who has reached beyond the Republicans' usual support into Democrat heartland.

[ image: George Bush Jnr - planted the seed of an idea?]
George Bush Jnr - planted the seed of an idea?
But it is an approach for which the Clinton/Blair axis could also claim some ownership. In November 1997, Hillary Clinton visited Belfast and gave a lecture imploring Catholic and Protestant women to talk to each other over their kitchen tables.

Holding aloft a teapot given to Mrs Clinton by community worker Joyce McCartan, she said: "I use this every day in my private kitchen."

Kitchen cabinet

Not that sitting round the table ensures peace, however. Mr Hague's first shadow cabinet meeting was held around the kitchen table in the Dorset hunting lodge of Lord Cranbourne, then the Conservative leader in the House of Lords.

Some months later, Mr Hague sacked Lord Cranbourne for going behind his back and agreeing with the government a deal to reform the Lords.

No doubt Mr Hague and his lieutenants have thought through the risks of his new approach backfiring like Back to Basics did. One thing he may not have thought of, however, and which may give his opponents scope for jibes, is the trans-Atlantic root of the concept.

A US kitchen table, they may well say, is less likely to see bread and butter issues than the breakfast favourite - the waffle.

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