Hague attempts to bridge the age divide

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Political Correspondent

The youngest Cabinet minister, William Hague, 34, yesterday made an attempt to match Labour's claim to appeal to young people in a special conference session which paraded a series of young speakers proclaiming Tory values.

The balding Mr Hague, Secretary of State for Wales, recalled his first speech to the Tory conference at the even younger age of 16 in 1978, when he first impressed Margaret Thatcher, as he led a drive to counter Tony Blair's "young country" theme.

Party strategists are acutely aware that the average age of Tory party members is 62, and that the representatives in Blackpool are markedly older than the delegates to last week's Labour conference in Brighton.

But Mr Hague claimed young people today are in tune with Tory policies and beliefs. He said: "For the first time since the 1930s we are seeing a young generation which is not the natural ally of the political left." He went on: "When I went to university, I used to debate with wild-eyed Marxist idealists who filled debating chambers with calls for unilateral disarmament and nationalisation." Now young people believed in "choice, freedom, independence".

But he admitted: "No one younger than me can fully remember a Labour government in all its grubby and miserable detail. And it's true that that is our problem."

Called "Spotlight on the Young", the session was launched with a video featuring Sebastian Coe's 1984 gold medal for the 1500m in the Los Angeles Olympics. It was introduced by Mr Coe, 39, now the Tory MP for Falmouth: "I believe there is a gold medal in all of us," he told the conference. "Young people are not, as the Labour Party tried to tell us last week, sitting jelly-like waiting for state handouts".

Mr Coe introduced some models of Conservative youth, who addressed the conference, and interviewed some more in the front row, in a parody of the live television coverage. Clare Stowe, 23, a teacher from Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, linked Mr Coe's athletic achievements to Tory philosophy: "Children need to understand competitive games as life is competitive."

But one young Tory who did not speak was Justin Hinchcliffe, 14, the right-wing representative who provoked a row last week when it seemed he might be excluded from the conference.