BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific

BBC News World Edition
 You are in: UK: Politics  
News Front Page
Middle East
South Asia
N Ireland
Talking Point
Country Profiles
In Depth
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
Tuesday, 8 October, 2002, 06:57 GMT 07:57 UK
Tough love for the Tories
BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder reviews the first day of the Conservative conference in Bournemouth with his verdict on Theresa May's astonishing speech.

By any measure, it has been a pretty bloody beginning to the conference week.

The so-called big beasts have ambled out of their undergrowth to savage the leadership.

And Iain Duncan Smith's poll ratings have got worse - a feat many believed impossible.

But, in a surprise development, party Chairman (her choice of title) Theresa May made an astonishing, possibly even unique, speech.

Never before has a Tory conference been subjected to such a blunt and critical free character reading.

She may lack the fire of a Margaret Thatcher, but her words were, in one senior backbencher's words "revolutionary".

New era

If her speech has set the tone for the rest of the conference - particularly Iain Duncan Smith's make-or-break speech - then we are in for fireworks.

She, in effect, told her party to pull itself together, accept it had acted in an unforgivable manner in the past, and agree the need to drag itself into a new era.

She even promised positive discrimination for minority election candidates as a necessary evil.

It offered no concessions to the "rockers" in the party demanding adherence to old values and images.

Instead it handed the mantle to the "mods" who are determined to modernise the party and make it more inclusive and tolerant.

If her speech set the tone, then shadow health secretary Liam Fox set the agenda with radical plans to devolve power to hospitals.

His plans for all hospitals to become foundation hospitals, combined with policies to allow parents huge power over schools, marks the new thinking in the Duncan Smith-led party.

Perhaps things at this conference really can only get better.

Tuesday's theme will be "helping the vulnerable."

All eyes will be on former Chairman David Davis as he makes his conference speech on regional government. Will he deliver any coded messages about the leadership?

He will be followed by shadow work and pensions secretary David Willets under the theme "renewing one nation" in which he will focus on poverty and opportunity after 50.

There will also be debates on domestic violence and world poverty led by Caroline Spelman.

The highlight is expected to be Shadow Chancellor Michael Howard's speech on the economy in the early evening.

The Tories might be trying to broaden their appeal, but according to shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin, you have to draw the line somewhere.

Speaking at a fringe meeting about the need to recruit more women to stop the party looking "weird", he dashed the hopes of transsexual Tories everywhere by saying he was only interested in the real thing, as it were.

"We don't want people to engage in sex changes and appear as women, " Mr Letwin joked.

Undoubtedly Theresa May who delivered one of the straightest-talking speeches to conference anyone could remember for years.

A few sat stony faced as she laid into the Tories who had let the party down - Jeffrey Archer and Edwina Currie were not actually named - and signalled positive discrimination towards women candidates.

Few knew she had it in her.

Edwina Currie. It's probably as well she stayed away from the conference - she might have been lynched if she had turned up.

Her book revealing details of her four-year affair with John Major is being outsold 25 to one by Ann Widdecombe's aptly titled "An Act of Treachery."

Some representatives have even considered organising a petition to have it banned from the Politico's bookshop which has a stall in the conference centre.

The seven year olds at a local school who, when asked by Mr Duncan Smith what politicians did, answered: "Argue."

Security is always tight at these events - and you never know who might end up getting frisked alongside you.

Today it was shadow Chancellor and former Home Secretary Michael Howard - the hardest man in the job until David Blunkett came along.

Something about him set the metal detectors off - a flick knife, his steel toe-caps, perhaps.

No, just his iron will to destroy Chancellor Gordon Brown apparently.

Ann Widdecombe - currently the star of Celebrity Fat Club - was being wined and dined in one of Bournemouth's finest Italian restaurants on Sunday night.

Poor woman - if she thought she could sneak in a quick, calorie-filled pasta dish she was in the wrong place.

I counted at least eight pairs of journalistic eyes all focussed on her throughout the meal.

Organisers are having second thoughts about their new-look set, or they should be.

It has only just dawned on them that every shadow minister who speaks from the podium on Tuesday will do so under the huge banner declaring: "Helping the vulnerable."

Key stories






E-mail this story to a friend

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East |
South Asia | UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature |
Technology | Health | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |