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Monday, October 4, 1999 Published at 16:03 GMT 17:03 UK


UK Politics

Robin Oakley's week in Blackpool



By BBC Political Editor Robin Oakley

For William Hague and the party managers the party conference beginning in Blackpool is crucial. At mid-term, when it is normally governments which are losing support, their opinion poll standing is still drifting. If they are to get back in the game in time to make any significant progress in the next election they have to begin now to engage public interest.

Conference99
The Hague strategy has been to spend the first year of the Parliament reorganising party organisation and finances and the second settling a party on Europe which the vast majority of Tory MPs and activists were happy to support.

Now they have to begin answering the question "What do you stand for" and coupling their criticisms of the government with responses to the query, "Well, what would you do?"

They believe that with their new "Common Sense Revolution" package of measures they have policies practical enough and controversial enough to catch the public eye.

The problem is that with the battle of the memoirs going on between John Major and Norman Lamont, with Lady Thatcher as ever inextricably involved, the media has had plenty else to concentrate on.

The Hague Tories also have to establish their personalities. For the moment the politicians whom the public had decided they did not want to see more of after 18 years in government have largely been replaced by politicians the public would not recognise in a bus queue.

New policies

The idea of the new policy package is to redefine Conservatism for the twenty-first century and to back up the generalities of a new approach with more specific "emblem" policies.

Thus a general aim of reducing taxes is coupled with a specific pledge to halve the starting rate of tax for savings. Also in the shop window already is a pledge to introduce maximum waiting times in the National Health Service.

Following the "Listening to Britain" exercise over the past year the policy package includes measures to crack down on welfare state fraud and to boost parent power in schools.

On the welfare front, the Tories plan to hit housing benefit fraud in particular by extending investigators rights of access to bank accounts etc, putting them on a par with tax inspectors.

They plan to have those suspected of drawing benefits while working in the black economy forced to sign on daily. And they intend to force those on Jobseekers' Allowance to take any job they are offered, on penalty of having their benefits cut if they don't. They are also thinking of privatising the employment service and putting the companies who take over on a payment by results system.

In education they plan that where a group of parents believe a school is failing they should be able to instigate a ballot of all parents. If the majority agree in that ballot inspectors would be called in. If the inspectors agree the school is failing head teachers and governors would be sacked and replaced by new management, again possibly from the private sector.

Savings will also be encouraged and worries over old people's care will be met by a plan to give incentives to those who insure against the cost of long term care in old age.

Going for a Blair

As well as the new policy package, the Tories are planning to gun for the prime minister personally, attacking what they will depict as the "cult of Blair".

The response to the prime minister's "weird ,weird, weird" attack on William Hague will be to attack Mr Blair as an insincere, posturing leader driven by focus group populism, with not a principle in his head.

They believe that his conference speech this year, attacking the forces of conservatism as responsible for such things as the killing of Stephen Lawrence and the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, was grossly over the top and a tactical blunder.

It has already stimulated Baroness Thatcher, who was initially suspected of having a sneaking regard for Mr Blair's style of government, to write an angry article in the Daily Telegraph saying that he shares none of her beliefs and that he has been sailing under false colours.

Problems ahead

The battle of the dinosaurs over John Major's and Norman Lamont's memoirs is not the only distraction from the core Tory message in Blackpool. Lady Thatcher is coming to address a fringe meeting on the case of General Pinochet.

Attendance is likely to prove a testament to her enduring totemic appeal to a party in which most people still define their politics in relation to hers.

And Michael Portillo will be addressing a fringe meeting on education. Aware of all the speculation about him as a future leadership candidate but nervous of rocking the boat, at least until Kensington and Chelsea have decided whether or not to select him as their candidate to succeed Alan Clark, he will probably be ultra cautious.

The wiser heads around both Mr Hague and Mr Portillo are aware how destabilising his return to full time politics could be. They don't want the battles over Europe replaced by battles over personality. But they cannot count on the wilder elements in either camp to show the same sophistication.

The other problem is that Europe has not gone away. The leadership argue with some justification that the 85% endorsement of William Hague's "not in the next Parliament" line on the single currency has settled the key issue and that their "in Europe but not ruled by Europe" approach in general has struck a responsive chord with the public.

But the pro single currency minority still contains big beasts like Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke and such sharp voices as Ian Taylor and David Curry.

Following the Tory success on a Euro-sceptic ticket in this year's European Parliament elections (although it was on a pathetically low turnout) there will be voices raised demanding an even more Euro-sceptic line, including a commitment against the single currency in principle to replace the "wait and see" policy.

If there is any hint that the leadership are intending to make the party's stance any more hardline then there will be a reaction from the pro-Europeans which will once again have the Tories lodged in the public mind as a bunch of squabblers.

We can expect minor ructions too over the Tory treasurership following the Times campaign against Michael Ashcroft and the demand from one party group for his to become an elected office.



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