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Last Updated: Friday, 14 July 2006, 07:46 GMT 08:46 UK
Interview: Archie Norman
By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

If anyone understands the perils of modernising the Conservative Party it is Archie Norman.

Long before David Cameron donned his cycle helmet and headed for Westminster, Mr Norman was telling Conservatives they had to change or face extinction.

Archie Norman
Born: May 1954
Educated: Charterhouse, University of Minnesota, Emmanuel College, Cambridge, Harvard Business School
1986: Finance director, Kingfisher Group
1991: Chief executive, Asda
1997: MP for Tunbridge Wells, Tory vice chairman
1998: Chief executive, Tory Party
1999: Foreign affairs spokesman
2000: Shadow environment secretary
2005: Stands down as MP
2006: Launches investment fund

It was Mr Norman - not Mr Cameron - who first told local Tory associations they had to recruit more female and ethnic minority candidates.

And it was Mr Norman who, as deputy chairman under William Hague, enraged the Tory old guard by telling them their obsession with unfashionable causes such as Europe and immigration was turning off voters.

But after eight years of banging the modernisation drum, the former Asda boss quit Parliament in frustration and returned to a career in business.

He had not, perhaps, banked on the election of Mr Cameron as party leader - or his enthusiastic embrace of the modernisation agenda.

When we meet in his Mayfair offices (he has just launched a new investment fund), Mr Norman seems a little surprised at how much Mr Cameron has been able to achieve since taking over the reins, although he stresses, there is still a long way to go.

'Long march'

Does he feel frustrated to be watching from the sidelines?

"No I don't. I am thrilled with it. So much of what David Cameron and his colleagues are doing now are things that I'd love to have been part of when I was there.

"But I had come to recognise that the party was determined to go through its long march through the desert.

"It was my misfortune that I was there during the period when we weren't prepared to turn and face the future."

It is easy to see why Mr Norman trod on a few toes during his time on the Conservative front bench.

David Cameron
Mr Cameron has embraced the modernisers' agenda

Within weeks of entering Parliament in 1997, his friend and then party leader William Hague put him in charge of "renewal and reform".

Mr Norman came with a big reputation - the chairman of a FTSE 100 company, a corporate turnaround specialist credited with saving retail giants Asda and Woolworth's.

But despite being warned about what to expect by friends, the stuffy formality of Westminster came as something of a shock to him.

" It's like a different world. What struck me most was the insularity of Westminster. The way that parliamentary process, everything from the buildings, the atmosphere, the voting late at night, the eccentric lifestyle comes to absorb people and becomes their world.

"So that events which are miniscule in the national political theatre are extremely important to them, some adjournment debate or late night vote."

He says he remembers being "staggered that John Redwood and the party whips thought it a great triumph that they had made the government stay up all night debating the minimum wage".

'Achieved a lot'

But it was not just his attitude to Westminster's traditions that got up his fellow Conservatives' noses.

Like current Tory chairman and close friend Francis Maude - Mr Norman believed his role was to tell fellow Conservatives unpalatable truths about their party.

"I think I probably did upset people with my views on the party, where it had to go, which I think was no bad thing, somebody had to be the messenger. The pioneer is not necessarily the most rewarding occupation in life."

He says he spent eight years being frustrated by the pace of change but insists "we achieved quite a lot".

"People now have no idea how backward the party was. The party didn't exist as a legal entity. There was no democracy in it at all. The membership didn't get any say. The centre had no control over anything like candidates.

"You couldn't conceive of having an A-list in those days. In fact, you may recall in 1997, that Neil Hamilton stood as the Conservative candidate despite the wishes of John Major, there was nothing he could do about it so there was no control over basic things.

"So we did create the party framework which I think has stood the test of time. We wanted to go on and do the same thing to the way it campaigned politically and presented itself but, unfortunately, I don't think there we won the argument."


Even now, the party is still only 30% down the road of change, he argues, and still has to ditch its commitment to "Neo-Thatcherite" policies which no longer strike a chord with "ordinary working people".

I think David will prove to be, in some ways, more conservative with a small 'c' leader than many people think
Archie Norman

At one time, during the 1950s and 1960s, he argues, "we were the party that was outstanding at changing, almost chameleon-like, to adopt the ideas of contemporary society, to be able to accept that society was moving on.

"But we had a way of looking at it that was still of abiding importance. And that's what we have lost."

Does that mean Mr Cameron must be more "chameleon-like" too?

"I don't think David is at all chameleon like. I think the Labour party want to say this just because he is popular."

Far from bending in any direction that seems popular, as his critics claim, Mr Norman says "we are starting to see a pattern of the Cameron view of the world which has threads which knit it together".

"You are seeing somebody who believes in a more responsible society, who believes that there is a purpose to Conservatism which runs beyond economics," he argues.

And with his views on the importance of family life, "I think David will prove to be, in some ways, more conservative with a small 'c' leader than many people think."

Press 'cheerleaders'

The one thing Mr Cameron must not do, stresses Mr Norman, is to become obsessed with opinion polls - or addicted to chasing tabloid headlines.

Mr Norman's biggest political regret seems to be William Hague's decision to ditch his enthusiasm for modernising the party in favour of creating policies - on Europe and immigration - to please a small band of "cheerleaders" in the press.

The resulting 2001 Conservative manifesto was a "tragedy" for the party, argues Mr Norman.

"I think William was just a massive talent and, in many ways, a better leader than history now relates, and he had insuperable obstacles, but I did think the manifesto was a very disappointing one and we did have a lot of debate about it."

The 2001 campaign and the "subsequent period" under Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard - both men he is at pains to point he likes and admires - further "entrenched negative perceptions" of the party and lost it valuable time, he believes.

He urges Mr Cameron to stick to his guns on modernisation - because, he argues, making the necessary changes to the culture of the party will take more than a bit of smart presentation and a few new policy ideas.

Would he consider returning to the fray to help out?

"I am still very interested in public policy and I am very interested the Conservative Party and I would like to help in any way," he says diplomatically.

"But I am not going back to Tunbridge Wells and my constituency now. I think you have to move on."

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