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EDITIONS
Sunday, 6 October, 2002, 19:27 GMT 20:27 UK
Tories 'ready to be led'
Francis Maude
Mr Maude says Tories need to change to survive

A leading Conservative moderniser has urged Iain Duncan Smith to speed up his reform of the party and be "more single-minded".


I don't by any means exclude the possibility that we'll win the next election

Francis Maude
Francis Maude said the Tory leader must recruit more women and ethnic minority candidates if he is to turn the party back into an election-winning force.

Tories were hungry for success and "ready to be led" in a more socially liberal and compassionate direction, the former shadow foreign secretary and close ally of Michael Portillo told BBC News Online.

But Mr Maude said it would be "absurd" to criticise Mr Duncan Smith for failing to improve the Conservatives' poll rating after just 12 months in the job.

As the party gathers for its annual conference in Bournemouth, Mr Duncan Smith has come under fire from some senior figures in the party.

Former supporters on the right have accused him of betraying the party's Thatcherite legacy by portraying himself as a friend of the vulnerable.

Modernising the party

But Mr Maude insisted the party must project a more caring and inclusive image - and modernise its attitude towards traditional Tory bogey-figures such as single mothers and gay people - if it is to survive in the long-term.

"It is about - whoever does it - the party reforming, modernising, becoming a genuine and contemporary centre-right party.

"Iain is doing a lot of the things that need to be done.

"I would like him to go further, faster, be more single-minded about it. But he can do it."

Hague's caring side

Mr Maude's campaign group Conservatives for Change - C-Change - is hosting a joint reception in Bournemouth with Stephen Dorrell's Mainstream group.

Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague
Some expect Duncan Smith follow Hague to the right
The event has been billed as an attempt by supporters of Kenneth Clarke and Michael Portillo to rally round Mr Duncan Smith and bury past differences.

Some on the left of the party fear Mr Duncan Smith will be deflected back to a right wing agenda if the polls fail to improve.

His predecessor William Hague spoke about 'caring Conservatism' in the early months of his leadership, before going on to adopt a hardline approach on issues like the euro and asylum.

'Welcome surprise'

Many of the ideas Mr Duncan Smith has spoken about in his first year in charge - from the need to recruit more women and ethnic minority candidates to the decentralisation of public services - have been championed by C-Change's sister organisation Policy Exchange.

No one was more surprised by Mr Duncan Smith's apparent conversion to the Portillo agenda than Policy Exchange's founder, Mr Maude.

"It was quite a surprise and obviously a very welcome one.

"None of us have any doubt that it is essential for the Conservative Party to regain credibility.

"We have to be a party of genuine social concern and not just claiming to have social concern in order to appear more caring.

"To be serious about it, you have to have serious policies that illustrate that concern."

'Ready to be led'

He conceded that there was little evidence of a clamour for a more caring and socially liberal agenda from ordinary party members.

But he said Tories "in the country" were ready to "do whatever is necessary" to regain power.

"You should not underestimate the demand there is in the constituencies for change.

"The Conservative Party has been throughout its very long history, an institution dedicated to winning elections and exercising power.

"The Labour Party, through much of its period of existence has been a natural party of opposition, We aren't. We hate it."

'Die-hards in the minority'

He said he saw an "intense desire" in the constituencies to "win back credibility".

Michael Portillo
Tory MPs rejected Portillo as a leadership candidate
Party members were ready "to do whatever is necessary for us to become once again a potential governing party and the party in the country is ready to be led".

He added: "There will inevitably be some diehards who think it is just a question of doing the old things better.

"But they are a minority and the majority are willing to be led."

He said he hoped it would not be necessary to impose change on the party from central office.

He agreed that one of the strengths of the party was its relatively decentralised structure, compared to Labour's "control freaks".

Devolving power

And, he argued, devolution of power and decision-making was a cornerstone of Tory philosophy.

"Driving decisions away from the centre, the whole theme of localism, decentralisation, which is the first thing that Policy Exchange is developing as an area of policy, is absolutely crucial.

"That is a profoundly Conservative outlook.

"Historically, we have been the country party, versus the court, the party that believes in people and communities having their own independence, being able to provide for themselves and having power dispersed as the counterbalance against excessive state power.

"Freedom and community solidarity seem to me to be inextricably linked".

'Dwindle' warning

But Mr Maude warned: "As a party, we can sit smugly saying how wonderfully decentralised we are, how perfectly that fits with our philosophical priorities.

"We can be congratulating ourselves in ever smaller groups, in ever tinier rooms about how pure we are. "But if we become a party that is not properly representative of the country as a whole then that is what our fate will be, to dwindle.

"And I am not prepared to see that."

'Don't panic'

Mr Maude also insisted he was under no illusions about the scale of the task - or how long it will take.

Mr Duncan Smith is under intense pressure to improve the Tories' opinion poll rating, which has hovered around the 30% mark for most of the past decade.

Some senior Tories believe Mr Duncan Smith only has until next May's local elections to start making significant inroads on Labour.

But Mr Maude urges the party not to panic.

Edge

"It seems to me perfectly possible that the polls won't have moved in that time.

"I hope they will, but there is no point in sitting on the edge of our seats month by month counting the percentage points. It is a long, slow process.

He added: "We have been ten years on the same level, to criticise Iain because in the last 12 months it hasn't transformed the position, after being there for nine years, would be absurd.

"The important thing is to stick with the strategy, stick with the approach and not waver from it and I'm sure that's what he'll do.

"It's going to take a long time. I don't by any means exclude the possibility that we'll win the next election. It's going to be uphill battle to achieve it."


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06 Oct 02 | Politics
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