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Last Updated: Monday, 3 October 2005, 08:57 GMT 09:57 UK
Tory leadership contest kicks off
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website in Blackpool

Michael Howard speaking to the press in Blackpool as Francis Maude looks on
All five would-be replacements for Michael Howard will speak
Conservative chairman Francis Maude is to open the starting gates on the Tory leadership election.

He will call for the candidates to cast off the party's old, negative image.

In what is expected to be a tough-talking address, he will welcome the consensus among the would-be leaders that the party has to change.

Mr Maude will say Conservatives have for too long been seen as a party of the countryside and which held some "bad values".

Claiming the conference will represent the "beginning of a journey" for the party, he will warn grassroots members not to sit back and simply wait for the political pendulum to swing back in their favour.

This will not just be the Conservatives talking to each other, but listening to and engaging with today's Britain
Francis Maude

Speaking before his big speech, Mr Maude said: "Too often we have come across as a party of the countryside.

"I never thought we were the nasty party, but people attributed some bad values to us... we need to project the good values by which Conservatives try to live their lives."

Candidates' platform

The party also had to adapt to the fact that most people now live in cities and that 7% come from ethnic minority backgrounds, he said.

The conference will see all those who have so far declared themselves candidates for the leadership given the opportunity to speak from the platform.

Contenders left to right, top to bottom: David Cameron; Kenneth Clarke; David Davis; Liam Fox; Andrew Lansley; Edward Leigh; Theresa May; Malcolm Rifkind.

But organisers are also encouraging ordinary voters from outside the party to contribute to the debate by texting and e-mailing their thoughts to the conference.

"This will not just be the Conservatives talking to each other, but listening to and engaging with today's Britain," he said.

And in a sideswipe at Labour, he said, while hecklers were not encouraged, members of the audience could join the debate from a special podium placed in the body of the hall.

The conference stage, under the new slogan "Today's Britain, Tomorrow's Conservatives", is deliberately minimal to act as a "clean canvas" on which the candidates can map out the party's future, he said.

'Party of conscience'

And the first day will see one declared candidate, shadow pensions secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, taking the stage.

Sir Malcolm will invoke the spirit of One Nation Conservatism and insist the party could repeat the success of Winston Churchill in 1951 when he ousted Labour after six years in office.

He will describe the Tories as "a party of social conscience as well as the party of lower taxes and strong defence".

Shadow culture secretary Theresa May, who has not thrown her hat into the ring but is seen as a possible candidate, will also take the stage.

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