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Thursday, 18 January, 2001, 19:13 GMT
Tories on election alert
Conservative election team
The Tory's core election team holds its first meeting
The Conservative Party has formally put itself on general election alert with party leader William Hague chairing the first meeting of his "inner circle" who will direct the campaign.

Members of the six-strong team will be taking the lead in many of the early morning news conferences that usually set the daily general election agenda.

Mr Hague intends to spend much of the time touring the country, launching Tory campaign themes with a range of appearances and interviews.

The 'inner circle'
Michael Portillo (shadow chancellor)
Francis Maude (shadow foreign secretary)
Michael Ancram (party chairman)
Andrew Lansley (shadow cabinet office minister)
Ann Widdecombe (shadow home secretary)
Iain Duncan Smith (shadow defence secretary)
Tory strategists have painted it as a deliberate attempt by Mr Hague to reach out beyond Westminster to get his message across to voters.

It mirrors the prime minister's efforts in recent months to talk directly to the electorate and by-pass what Labour sees as a problematic media filter.

The declaration of the move to election alert comes at the end of a week that provided useful ammunition for the Tories.

The law and order debate - destined to be a central election theme - was fanned by the release of figures showing a slight drop in overall crime but a jump in violent offences.

Mr Hague has also been able to seize on the prime minister's refusal to take part in a televised debate with other party leaders during the campaign for the expected spring election.

Labour claimed the move would distract attention from the issues but Mr Hague labelled Mr Blair a "real coward".

Conservative Central Office
Conservative Central Office: Campaign team HQ
And then the Tories' election coffers were boosted by a 5m donation from IG Betting millionaire Stuart Wheeler.

The Conservatives have released other details of their campaign operations.

In Mr Hague's absence news conferences will be fronted by either shadow chancellor Michael Portillo or shadow foreign secretary Francis Maude.

They have been given the roles of chief policy spokesmen for the campaign.

Conferences will be chaired by party chairman Michael Ancram or shadow cabinet office minister Andrew Lansley.

'Barn-stormers'

Mr Lansley has been appointed chief campaign spokesmen with responsibility for the political and strategic side of the campaign.

Shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe and shadow defence secretary Iain Duncan Smith have been charged with touring the country in "barn-storming" style.

Party strategists are keen to stress Mr Hague will be very much in charge of the campaign.

The core team based at Conservative Central Office in Westminster is designed to give him strong back-up and allow flexible reactions to the challenges of the campaign as it develops.

Innovative techniques

The Tory leader would use some conventional press conferences to get his message across, but feels more innovative techniques will spice up the campaign in his favour.

Mr Blair's own experiments with more direct tactics has recently seen him holding question and answer sessions with invited audiences outside London.

In another break from the past, the Conservatives will frequently use Mr Hague's visits and broadcast interviews to set the daily agenda rather than holding press conferences every day.

Other shadow cabinet members will be allocated policy areas or geographical zones and may lead localised campaigning against Labour or the Liberal Democrats.

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See also:

18 Jan 01 | UK Politics
I gain nothing - 5m Tory donor
18 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Blair's 'blue funk' over TV debate
16 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Sharp rise in violent crime
08 Jan 01 | UK Politics
All eyes on election day
04 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Donations mark start of election battle
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