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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 23 July, 2002, 10:45 GMT 11:45 UK
May's new mission
Theresa May
Theresa May accepts need for party to change

Theresa May is as smart and as well spoken as you'd expect a Tory home counties MP to be.

The new Conservative chairman will immediately find herself on a mission to change the way her party is perceived, with a key task of attracting more female candidates.

And she will also be charged with helping the party soften its image as it seeks to portray itself as the party of the most vulnerable.


It is always going to be difficult to change your image as party - that's one of the hardest things

Theresa May

Mrs May, the first woman to become Tory chairman, is the daughter of an Anglican parson.

Promotion through the party ranks has been rapid for an MP regarded as a hard worker and a safe pair of hands.

Mrs May - who admits she sometimes receives mail intended for glamour model Teresa May - has been an MP for five years.

But while she is relatively new to the House of Commons, the 45-year-old is no newcomer to politics.

After becoming a councillor in London in 1986, she stood in north-west Durham in the 1992 General Election and Barking in a by-election in 1994.

Despite losing those two elections, she was successfully elected in Maidenhead in the 1997 general election.

In a recent BBC News Online interview, she said there was "no kind of sudden conversion" which persuaded her to go into politics.

Criticism

But she added: "My father was a clergyman - there are quite a few clergy children in the House of Commons - and that sort of public service ethos and also dealing with people's problems, are sort of similar to the political field."

Mrs May has been solidly supportive of Iain Duncan Smith, though some will say her move is more sideways than upwards.

After her election to the Commons in 1997, she was handed a frontbench brief within two years, speaking for the Conservatives on education.

And after the last election, she moved to transport, local government and the regions, shadowing Stephen Byers until his downfall in May.

Mrs May faced criticism for failing to come up with a killer blow as Mr Byers reeled under intense pressure earlier this year.

She rejected the charge - and the Tories will no doubt claim that her efforts in highlighting the problems on the UK's railways and roads played a part in Mr Byers' eventual resignation.

Agenda

Mrs May had backed Michael Portillo in last year's Tory leadership election, and when he was eliminated, she didn't declare her voting intentions.

She currently sits on the board of CChange, the Portillo-inspired organisation set up by Francis Maude.

In her BBC News Online interview, she said that Iain Duncan Smith was pursuing the right agenda for her party because "we do need to change and I hope people are already starting to see those changes coming through".

She was also asked about the Tory Party's focus on the most vulnerable people in society.

She said: "The Conservative Party has always been a party that has cared for vulnerable people in society.

"If you look at the grassroots of the party, many people involved in the Conservative Party are also involved actively in voluntary organisations, in charities, in working with people in deprived areas."

Difficult

One of the tasks facing the new Tory chairman will be to attract candidates from a more diverse background, including more women.

She said in the interview that the party is examining how potential candidates can be "matched" closer to constituencies, while the selection procedure needs to be "sharpened up" with selection committees given training on choosing candidates.

And she accepted that the Tories had an image problem in the past.

"It is always going to be difficult to change your image as party," she says. "That's one of the hardest things.

"Despite everything that's been done in the past it's certainly the case that for many people the perception was a rather harsher approach than in fact often policies showed.

"I hope that people will see that we are changing. I think people do."

See also:

29 Apr 02 | Politics
25 Mar 02 | Politics
24 Mar 02 | Politics
17 Feb 00 | Education
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