And what's the new Tory idea? Caring and sharing

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The Independent Online
William Hague and Michael Portillo promised a new caring, sharing Tory party, tolerant and open to all-comers. Our Political Editor observes the first stage of the Conservatives' modernisation project.

The buzz-words of caring, compassion, magnanimity, humanity and tolerance became the mood music in Blackpool last night. The new leader, Mr Hague, and the Thatcherite leader-in-waiting, Mr Portillo, united around a New World message for the faithful at the party conference.

Just as Labour was forced gradually to jettison its image as a Euro-phobic, high-tax, nuclear-disarming and union-dominated gang of socialist militants over the past 15 years, Mr Portillo last night began the delicate task of dismantling the harsh, hard-faced impression left with the voters after 18 years of Conservative government.

But mixed in with the apologies there were a number of statements and suggestions that will dismay voters who have long regarded Mr Portillo as a bogeyman of the Thatcherite Right - and who saw his defeat in Enfield Southgate as the highlight of election night.

Mr Portillo said the best companies were those that treated their employees best; it was laughable to describe the last government "as a mad worshipper at the shrine of the free market"; Labour would bring no improvement in status or pay for the millions working in public services; the past 15 years have seen great improvements in job security; the instinct for social cohesion was vital for Conservatives; and the Tories were decentralisers by nature. "None of us would wish to live in a grabbing and inhumane society made up of greedy and selfish people," he said, attacking a caricature of Conservative government. "Our enemies may have sought to attach such people to the Conservative Party, but they have nothing in common with our beliefs."

The man who was humbled by the voters in his safe seat in north London on 1 May returned to the Tory stage at a conference fringe meeting organised by the Centre for Policy Studies with a speech which also marked the first step on his road back to Westminster. He told the meeting that the Conservatives needed to show social compassion towards groups like single parents, toleration for the "span of human relationships", and attention to the "human capital" of business.

Mr Portillo also took the opportunity to pledge his support for Mr Hague, saying the new leader had every right to expect public and private loyalty. "If he does not get it," he said, "we stand no chance of being re-elected. He has shown that he will lead. Now the party must show that it can be led."

But The Independent has been told that new leadership election rules now being considered by the Tory backbench 1922 committee will make it well-nigh impossible for any challenge to be mounted against Mr Hague before the next election - with the opposition of 40 per cent of MPs being required before any further contest can take place.

Capitalising on his new-found strength - with the full and loyal endorsement of the party in the country and of the conference activists, Mr Hague's colleagues said last night that he would be spelling out his vision of a caring, sharing, open and tolerant party in the traditional wind-up speech to the conference today.

In one passage of his proposed text, he says: "I want to talk to you about my kind of Conservatism ... I want to tell you about a democratic popular Conservatism which listens and is determined to show it cares."

Echoing Mr Portillo's message that money is not the be-all and end-all of Conservatism, he plans to say that his kind of Conservatism "believes that freedom is more than economics ... that freedom doesn't stop at the shop counter.

"I want to tell you about a changing Conservatism that acknowledges its mistakes but I also want to tell you about a proud Conservatism that has served this nation well, and will do again."

But Mr Hague also shares with Mr Portillo a new tolerant tone towards the sexual revolution, saying in media interviews last night that he did not believe ministers should be sacked for sexual indiscretions. Mr Portillo also said that the party had to deal with the world as it was: "... old taboos have given way to less judgmental attitudes to the span of human relationships."

In deference to his own party elders - like Baroness Thatcher - he added: "There remain many other people to whom the new norms seem all wrong ... Still, the party never rejects the world that is. Tolerance is part of the Tory tradition."

Conference reports, pages 6, 7