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Monday, 17 April, 2000, 14:28 GMT 15:28 UK
Reasons to be cheerful

BBC News Online's Nyta Mann interviews Conservative Party chairman and MP for Devizes Michael Ancram.

After three years of New Labour government the Conservatives, according to opinion polls, have yet to improve on the dismal rating they achieved at the last election.

It is easy to find Tories who privately say the next election is about cutting Labour's giant parliamentary majority rather than replacing the party in office; almost impossible to find one who privately admits to believing they will win it.

But Conservative Party chairman Michael Ancram insists there are reasons to be cheerful.

"We're not making headway in the polls but we are on the ground," he insists, pointing to local council by-elections and last month's Scottish Parliament Ayr by-election.

Voter apathy and the stay-at-home factor among Labour supporters will inevitably translate into higher poll ratings for the Tories, Ancram believes. For now, "to an extent opinion polls are lagging behind what people are actually doing when they're faced with actual voting".

Still, New Labour looks set to achieve what no other post-war government has: to sail through an entire term comfortably ahead of the Opposition in the opinion polls.

Michael Ancram: Believes the Tories will match Labour's support
Ancram, though, forecasts his party will break Labour's poll lead before then. "Yes," he cheerfully predicts.

"I'm going to be happy if over the next few months we even up the opinion polls so that we can show people that we are in a contest. And when you're running neck and neck, there's all to play for. That's the first thing we need to do."

'Still compassionate'

Following the devastating defeat of 1997 under William Hague's new leadership, the Conservatives went on an apology spree. They were sorry for appearing harsh and uncaring. There were more important things than money. They had learned their lesson.

This mea culpa phase has passed. The party now appears to have settled on fighting on more traditional Tory ground: tax cuts, reducing welfare spending, a tough line on asylum and an emphasis on more traditional family values.

Ancram insists that his remains a resolutely One Nation party and the softer approach that "compassionate Conservatism" - remember that? - appeared to herald has not been ditched for a tougher line that instead consolidates core Tory support.

"I don't think it is less soft-sounding," he insists. Compassionate Conservatism is about "finding the real problems that people are facing and addressing them as problems".

He cites in example Tory health service policy, "in which clinical priorities are the master rather than administrative of political priorities".

'Tolerant - but no endorsement'

William Hague: Launched "compassionate Conservatism" after becoming leader
But compassionate Conservatism was about much more than this.

Leading party figures were almost falling over themselves to say sorry for the party having appeared mean-minded and intolerant, for having alienated single mothers, gays and other non-nuclear family forms, for seeming hostile to public sector workers and minority groups. All were expressly welcomed into the new Tory embrace.

Asked if he would reiterate this now, Ancram only extends what sounds a rather more conditional welcome.

"No - we've always said we are an inclusive party. But within that party we do have certain things that we believe in. Indeed, a very good example of that is we have always been the party of the family. Now that doesn't mean that we exclude any other lifestyle."

"But it means equally that if we include other lifestyles and we are tolerant of them, we are not necessarily going to endorse them because we are the party of the family and we believe that is the central building block and that is the one we should support."

Ancram says he can "see no difference" in the rhetoric he, Hague or the party now uses to the language it used last year or the year before.

Tories must not 'mince words'

Political language has been much at issue just recently with Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes having referred both Labour and the Tories to the Commission for Racial Equality over their populist rhetoric on asylum.

Ancram rejects the charge that his party has played a part in exploiting and stoking racism, insisting that the Tories have raised only entirely valid points in legitimate terms.

"You've got to be very careful that we don't, in dealing with things that actually matter to people - and the whole question of asylum is a very important issue - that we don't mince words and therefore that we don't actually lose sight of the priorities," he says.

"And the priority on asylum to me is that genuine refugees should be able to come to this country and find sanctuary here. That has always been our tradition." It's a tradition he says is undermined by the "vast numbers" entering the UK who are eventually judged economic migrants.

Bill Morris: Attacked Labour and the Tories over asylum
As Bill Morris, the respected leader of the Transport and General Workers' Union, said last week, were not both the main parties responsible for "giving life to the racists".

And though Ancram insists his party's priority on asylum is sanctuary for those fleeing persecution, couldn't voters hearing Tory spokespeople pronouncing on the subject be forgiven for thinking the priority was stopping asylum-seekers entering the country in order to sponge and scrounge?

"Not at all, and Ann Widdecombe said over and over again that the purpose of what she is suggesting is to protect the position of genuine refugees."

Does he reject any parallel between the emotive language used in the present debate and Margaret Thatcher's sympathetic and highly controversial declaration in 1978 - a time when the far-right anti-immigrant National Front enjoyed a surge of support - about fears among white Britons that they were being "swamped by people with a different culture".

"Yes absolutely," Ancram firmly says. "This is a question about an abuse of a system, and if a system is abused as widely as it is being at the moment then if you don't deal with that you're actually undermining the system itself."

Remembrance of sleaze past

Lord Archer, Charles Wardle, Neil Hamilton and Michael Ashcroft have all been the subject of media attention far from helpful to the Tory cause in recent months. Ancram must worry, like other Tory strategists do, that the party may have difficulty escaping the "sleaze" label which, rightly or wrongly, in the public mind attached itself to the Conservatives before the last election.

The Tory chairman stoutly defends Ashcroft - "He's been a good treasurer of our party, he's made us live within our means, he's made us cut our expenditure ... He's coming back [to the UK], as you know, and he's going to pay tax".

But Ancram acknowledges that headlines about other well-known Tory names have caused an unfortunate remembrance of scandals the party had hoped past.

"Lord Archer was a throwback to the previous period - in fact, the reason for his resignation goes back a very long way. I think it's fairly evident from the fact that Charles Wardle is now standing down from Parliament that his association with Mohammed al Fayed was not something our party welcomed."

Ancram admits the party must work on escaping the tag: "We've actually got to get away from that and deal with the realities of the situation."

And how do the Tories do that? "By concentrating on the realties and by making sure that when we move forward we're not constantly looking backward . All right, we accept that it's in the nature of politics that our past will remain with us."

"But the only way you get away from the past, particularly those aspects which have been damaging, is by showing that you have changed, that you are new, that you are moving forward. And I think we can do that."

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14 Apr 00 | UK Politics
Government defends race record
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