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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 October 2005, 13:07 GMT 14:07 UK
Assinder's view: Rifkind speech
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

It may be the best part of a decade since Sir Malcolm Rifkind last addressed the Tory conference - but he came to Blackpool determined to remind the party why it once saw him as a star.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind
Sir Malcolm gave a vintage performance

On the first day of the party's leadership beauty pageant, he stormed onto the platform, tore up his prepared speech and delivered a rousing call to arms.

As rivals Ken Clarke and Liam Fox upped the stakes with fringe speeches pitching Europe back into the spotlight, Sir Malcolm delivered a vintage performance.

He knows he is lagging in the leadership stakes, even admitting that, while the party had a mountain to climb, he had "an even higher" one to scale.

But he went to it with a will, clearly determined not to lose the race as the result of a poor performance on the night.

For many in the hall, there was probably more than a slice of nostalgia in watching one of their veterans giving the sort of performance they were once regularly treated to.

And that is much of his appeal. It amounts to "Back to the One Nation Future".

History lesson

His speech drew heavily on the long Conservative history, recalling William Wilberforce, Rab Butler, Harold Macmillan and, inevitably, Winston Churchill.

And he specifically highlighted the "social revolution" brought about by the council house right-to-buy policy of Margaret Thatcher's Tory government - suggesting it was exactly the sort of radical, popular policy the party should again be seeking.

CONFERENCE RATING
CV: Sir Malcolm Rifkind, 59, shadow work and pensions secretary
Key Quote: "We need to win back the millions of people who do not think of themselves as Conservatives but who voted for us in the past."
Best joke: "He is Bill Clinton without the sex.... so far as we know" (about Tony Blair)
Ovations: Eight rounds of applause - finale wins 56 seconds
Speech length: 17 minutes, 10 seconds
Name drops: Many Churchills, no Thatchers
Nick Assinder's verdict: Can still wow Tory activist with One Nation vision

He did not, however, offer such a policy.

But none of the leadership candidates have, so far, shown any great desire to get down to specifics.

And, while Sir Malcolm insisted the party needed to renew itself to keep pace with a changing society, his appeal was still very much based on, as he said himself, getting back to Tory roots.

There was no doubt his audience loved it.

He was given an enthusiastic standing ovation by the representatives, many of whom are old enough to remember many of his previous conference performances.

And that may be one of his problems.

In those days he was seen as a possible future leader. Eight years since he was kicked out of the Commons, might it be the case that his future is behind him?

Another of his problems is Ken Clarke.

The former Tory chancellor is of a similar vintage to Sir Malcolm and he also harks back to the One Nation tradition.

But he is running well ahead of Sir Malcolm in the leadership stakes and has not had eight years outside the Commons.

If Sir Malcolm is to climb his mountain, he will probably have to step over Mr Clarke on the way up.

That is not an easy task, and Mr Clarke spent his lunchtime raising the summit even higher for his friend.

In a conference fringe meeting, he delivered the sort of robust, relaxed and straight-talking performances that are his stock in trade, but are a relative rarity in modern politics.

Just as right-wing Eurosceptic contender Liam Fox was suggesting a Tory government should be ready to contemplate withdrawal from the EU if the price of entry was too high, Mr Clarke was attempting to kill off Europe as a campaign issue.

Not only was it off the agenda for at least a decade, but there was no way he would have a cabinet of Europhiles like himself or risk blowing a Tory government apart by reviving the issue, should he be prime minister.

In or out?

Meanwhile, Theresa May lived up to her surname - refusing to use her speech to tell the conference whether she was planning to stand as leader.

On one reading it appeared she was ready to throw her kitten heels into the ring, setting out the things she believes the Tories have to do to win power and praising the first woman leader, Margaret Thatcher.

But then she failed to announced her candidacy, leading most to conclude she was not about to attempt to emulate Lady Thatcher.

And that has probably left it to Rifkind, Fox, Cameron, Clarke and Davis to fight it out among themselves.

On the evidence of day one, this contest is just starting to catch fire.




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