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Friday, 23 February, 2001, 16:27 GMT
Michael Ancram: Tory chairman

Nick Assinder

He may be a genuine toff who will one day become the 13th Marquess of Lothian, but Conservative Chairman Michael Ancram is one of the most approachable men in politics.

He has always preferred the Commons to the Lords and is as at home in Annie's Bar having a pint with MPs and journalists as he is fly fishing with aristocratic mates.

Where [his predecessor] Dr Mawhinney could be combative, abrasive and on occasion downright rude, Mr Ancram is always reasonable, slow to anger and invariably courteous

He is an Earl, married to the daughter of the Duke of Norfolk, but always prefers to be known as Mr or just Michael.

He is famous for his love of folk music and regularly plays guitar at Tory party gatherings or, to be frank, anywhere else people want to listen.

He is from the left, or "caring", wing of the Tory party and, while he was given his first ministerial post by Margaret Thatcher, he always appeared more at peace with John Major's leadership.

He is a friend of former Tory Chancellor Ken Clarke and is himself pro-Europe.

All these characteristics, therefore, appeared to make him an odd choice by William Hague as the man to lead the Tory machine into the next general election.

Slow to anger

He is certainly a million miles away from previous chairman Brian Mawhinney, who took the party into the 1997 election.

Former Tory Chairman Lord Parkinson
Parkinson: reminder of old days
Where Dr Mawhinney could be combative, abrasive and on occasion downright rude, Mr Ancram is always reasonable, slow to anger and invariably courteous.

Again, characteristics that seem ill-suited to the job of whipping the Tory machine into shape and exploiting every political advantage over the government.

But many see Mr Hague's decision to replace the post-election chairman and veteran politician Cecil Parkinson with Mr Ancram as an astute move.

For a start, while Lord Parkinson shares many of Mr Ancram's personal characteristics - charm, the ability to get on with virtually everybody and an easy sense of humour - he was still a reminder of "the old days" which the Tories are desperate to put behind them.

His damaging affair with Sara Keays may have been years behind him, but would never leave him and all-too-easily allow the sleaze tag to be attached to him.

Everything about Michael Ancram, on the other hand, screams propriety.

Secondly, Mr Hague was eager to give the Tories a more caring and inclusive image in the aftermath of the 1997 disaster and Mr Ancram was certainly up to that.

Upbeat and positive

In a well received speech to last year's Tory party conference he attempted to hammer home that message.

He told representatives: "This is our chance to show that, far from the shores of extremism upon which our opponents seek to place us, we are the party of the mainstream, sharing the values of the mainstream majority in this country."

Former Tory leader Baroness Thatcher
Thatcher gave Ancram first job
His task of persuading the Tory faithful that they could actually win the next election was far harder but he remained upbeat and positive about their chances.

But he may have had more difficult jobs. When Margaret Thatcher appointed him to the Scottish Office she gave him the unenviable job of introducing the poll tax.

He had to throw all his enthusiasm behind it, despite what many believed were his own misgivings.

Later, John Major sent him to the Northern Ireland office as the prominent Catholic minister.

And, despite the fact Mr Ancram had been in the Grand Hotel in Brighton when it was bombed by the IRA in 1984, he led the first government delegation to public talks with Sinn Fein in 1995.

After the 1997 election William Hague gave him the job of constitutional affairs spokesman - a job designed to get around the fact that there were no longer any Conservative MPs in Scotland or Wales.

That meant, however, that he had to run the Tories' anti- devolution campaign, despite the fact he had once favoured devolution.

It was a tough campaign and took its toll on all those involved but, once again, Mr Ancram rose to the occasion.

His great political skills are as a conciliator and an absolutely trustworthy and safe colleague.

Unfortunately Tory chairmen seldom go on to glittering careers and there must be a question mark over his post election role.



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