Hurd fears Tory lurch to right: Foreign Secretary in eve-of-conference plea to 'use common sense as our guide'

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DOUGLAS HURD yesterday warned the Conservative Party against a lurch to the right amid pre-conference divisions over tax, Europe and the reponse to Tony Blair as leader of the Labour Party.

Anticipating right-wing pressure on John Major this week on the conference fringe in Bournemouth to put more 'clear blue water' between the Conservatives and Labour, the Foreign Secretary said the party needed to make it clear that it was not in favour of 'privatisation for its own sake' or for the 'withering away of the state'.

Mr Hurd predicted in an interview with the Independent that the two main parties would move closer together and called on the Conservatives not to 'abandon' their chosen political territory because Mr Blair was 'trying to move on to it'.

In a pointed reference to the swing to the left by Labour after the 1979 election, Mr Hurd warned his party against the 'Michael Foot error' of thinking 'that people aren't voting for us because we aren't extreme enough. Common sense should be our guide.'

Mr Hurd's remarks came as Conservative Way Forward, the Thatcherite pressure group, complained that the party was 'not just bruised but bleeding' and called for a 2 pence reduction in the standard rate of tax next month coupled with more stringent public spending cuts.

The group posed the question: 'Has John Major lost so much 'street credibility' that he can never regain it?'

Jeremy Hanley, the party chairman, will announce a pounds 1m drive to reverse a slump which has halved membership from its postwar peak of around 1 million. But amid speculation that Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, will announce a Green Paper on identity cards, a Sunday Express opinion poll showed 88 per cent of voters believe the Government has had no impact on crime. While backing Mr Howard, Mr Hurd said that 'what government shouldn't do is to pretend that governments alone can cure crime'.

Mr Hurd criticised National Health Service managers for using language about the NHS reforms which 'the patient regards as unsympathetic'. He added: 'It's quite right to have management objectives but . . . they are not an end in itself.'

With Cabinet ministers lining up for television interviews to back the caution of Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, on early tax cuts, Mr Hurd said: 'It's perfectly right that tax reduction should be an unmistakable aim of a Conservative government. But it has to be done when the national finances will bear it.' In strong contrast, however, the former prime minister Sir Edward Heath said that tax cuts were low on voters' priorities.

Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, said Labour would be monitoring 'Tory lies' at Bournemouth.

Hurd interview, page 8

Bournemouth preview, page 9

Tory MEPs' isolation, page 11

Crucial conference, page 17

Julian Critchley, page 19