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"The Commission for Racial Equality say they're not blackmailing anyone"
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Former Conservative MP Phillip Oppenheim
"I think this is a seriously misguided attempt to win back support on the right"
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The Daily Telegraph's Janet Daley
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Conservative Party Chairman Michael Antrim
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Friday, 20 April, 2001, 18:15 GMT 19:15 UK
Portillo refuses to sign race pledge
William Hague and Michael Portillo
Mr Hague has signed the pledge - but Mr Portillo won't
Shadow chancellor Michael Portillo has become the most senior Conservative MP to refuse to sign an anti-racism pledge.

The pact was drawn up by the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) to encourage politicians not to use racist language during the forthcoming general election campaign.

I went into public life to speak for myself and I will use my own language, my own words

Michael Portillo
It has attracted increasing criticism with some other Tory MPs rejecting it and a former minister calling it "loathsome and offensive".

Conservative Party chairman Michael Ancram insists it was clear from the start party leader William Hague had signed the compact on behalf of the whole party.

Asked about it during a trip to Wales on Friday Mr Portillo said: "No, I haven't signed it because I speak for myself and I have said that I offer equality of esteem to everyone in this country.

"I don't like signing bits of paper and questionnaires thrust in front of me.

"I went into public life to speak for myself and I will use my own language, my own words."

Mr Portillo agreed with the party chairman that Mr Hague had already signed the pledge on behalf of all the party's election candidates.

He added that Mr Ancram would come down "like a ton of bricks" on anyone in the party who used racist or provocative language.

Party vice-chairman Steve Norris has already said Mr Hague expected every Conservative candidate to be signed up to the compact.

The CRE pledge
Labour: 269 of 417 MPs signed
Tory: 55 of 160 signed, 4 refused
Lib Dem: 45 of 47 signed
Others: 9 signed
On Friday, he said candidates who did not want to sign the agreement had an argument but it was not a view he shared.

"I would say there is absolutely nothing in this which isn't in any event perfectly straightforward and which any decent person wouldn't be happy to sign," he told BBC News.

Mr Portillo's comments have dramatically increased the tempo in the debate on racism in politics - and could be seen as an embarrassment to Mr Hague.

The pact commits politicians "not to pitch one group against another for short term political or personal gain".

And it commits the main party leaders - who all signed it - to taking action against any candidates or campaigners who provoke racial prejudice.

On Thursday Mr Portillo pledged "complete loyalty" to Mr Hague following simmering debate about a possible leadership challenge after the election.

But Labour seized on his latest comments, with a spokesman saying he "has demonstrated that the Conservatives under William Hague have no discipline, leadership or unity".

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy also went on the attack, saying: "If William Hague is going to make the pledge worth more than the paper it's written on, then all candidates must be understood to have signed up to that commitment as well."

Blackmail claim

Earlier Conservative former minister John Gummer accused the CRE of "blackmail" in the way it handled the pledge.

John Gummer
Mr Gummer insisted it was not racist to avoid signing the pledge
Although he did not object to its wording, Mr Gummer labelled it "unconstitutional", declined to say whether he had signed it and defended colleagues who had refused to do so.

Other Tories lining up to voice their opposition to the pledge include former minister Nicholas Soames.

He said: "I think personally it's a loathsome and offensive document and I think it's a corpse of an idea which is trying to drag racism into a general election where no such desire frankly would otherwise exist."

Culture Secretary Chris Smith said Mr Soames' criticism of the compact "beggars belief".

But Dr Raj Chandran, a former member of the CRE and Conservative candidate at the 1997 general election, said the pledge was counter-productive and risked suppressing freedom of speech.

Phil Barnett, director of policy and communications at the CRE, rejected the "blackmail" accusation.

He told BBC News: "It is simply nothing more or less than a brokered agreement between the parties that has attempted to set a standard for the debate about race and race relations in the election."

The row began when Robin Cook attacked recent Tory statements including Mr Hague's warning that Britain could become "a foreign land" under Labour.

The opposition hit back, accusing the foreign secretary of playing the race card himself.

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See also:

20 Apr 01 | UK Politics
Full text of anti-racism election pledge
20 Apr 01 | UK Politics
'Blackmail' claim in race row
19 Apr 01 | UK Politics
Tories reject Cook race claim
19 Apr 01 | UK Politics
Show of unity by Hague and Portillo
17 Apr 01 | UK Politics
Tory candidates warned over racism
04 Apr 01 | UK Politics
MP defends race comments
28 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Hague rebukes Tory MP over race
01 Apr 01 | UK Politics
Hague attacked over race record
01 Feb 00 | UK Politics
Michael Portillo: A political rebirth
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