Francis Maude: 'The Conservative Party's problem is us, not Labour. Our destiny is in our hands'

The Monday Interview: Conservative Party chairman
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The Independent Online

The chairman of the Conservative Party ordered a prawn sandwich and said he would be sitting outside in the garden of the Selsey, a pub in deepest leafy Sussex, where he also happens to be a local MP.

The chairman of the Conservative Party ordered a prawn sandwich and said he would be sitting outside in the garden of the Selsey, a pub in deepest leafy Sussex, where he also happens to be a local MP.

"Name?" asked the landlord. "Maude," he replied. "Sorry," said the landlord. "I didn't recognise you in mufti." In blue jeans, and a denim shirt, Francis Maude looked an ordinary punter, not a typical Tory politician in suit and tie who had been stamping the streets of nearby Horsham, in the neighbouring constituency, for the past three weeks, pulling votes on the election trail.

It could be a lesson for life for the new Conservative Party. Mr Maude was brought back from the relative obscurity of C-Change, a pressure group for Conservative reform, and the Policy Exchange, a modernising think-tank, by Michael Howard to speed the process of renewal after the Conservatives' third successive defeat, before he hands over to a new leader at Christmas.

If David Davis wins, Mr Maude may not have much time. He knows a new leader, unless he is from the modernising wing of the party, will want a new chairman. Mr Maude agreed with Alan Duncan who said in an interview last Monday with The Independent that the Tories did not understand the country they aspired to govern.

"It is the sense that we don't understand modern Britain; that we sometimes live on a different planet; that we are thought to be backward looking, and we have not presented a positive enough vision of what Britain of tomorrow could be like," Mr Maude said. He admits it is not an easy balancing act for someone who has the Conservative pedigree he has. His father was Angus Maude, a right-wing minister in Margaret Thatcher's cabinet, and as a minister himself in the mid-1980s when she made being "wet" a term of derision, Francis Maude was one of the most desiccated of the dries, who helped to write the No Turning Back pamphlet to reinforce the Thatcherite principles of the party. "I sometimes get described as being on the left of the party," he said. "I don't understand that. In the old terms of wet/dry, I was emphatically a dry. It's all a bit unsettling all of this."

Before popping in to the pub for lunch, we were in his home in the Sussex Weald, a magnificent arts-and-craft country house, all oak beams and local ironmongery. It is roomy, very comfortable, and there is a relaxed feel of old money. Outside is a 4x4 car, a "Chelsea tractor".

The man who is urging the party to change is himself a dyed-in-the-wool dry, Eurosceptic Tory. He says it is not about clothes, and there is to be no repeat of the Amanda Platell make-over of William Hague. Whoever wins the leadership race, you can bet he will not go down a water-chute in a baseball cap.

"We are not going to do stuff that is superficial," he said. "This is not a superficial problem. It's a problem about outlook and attitude, not about the clothes you wear." Mr Maude has had a fraught morning, dealing with a report that he was caught plotting with Stephen Dorrell and Andrew Tyrie to get Andrew Lansley to run as the modernisers' candidate.

"Pure fantasy," he said. "We did talk last week before I was appointed chairman, and Stephen Dorrell immediately had to go off for a knee operation. There will be a lot of rubbish like this coming out." Rubbish like The Mail on Sunday story claiming he had been asked to draw up a list of supporters of Mr Howard before the election to prevent an attempted palace coup by the Davis camp. He dismisses that too. "It's ancient history; it was wrong when it was written, he said.

It is easy to see why he inspires the plotting stories. Mr Maude is a king-maker, and a king-breaker. He ran Michael Portillo's ill-fated leadership campaign. He was among the first five Tory MPs who wrote the letters forcing Iain Duncan Smith to face a leadership challenge, and he was behind the smooth transition of power - something Mr Blair plans to emulate - that allowed Mr Howard to take over from Mr Duncan Smith without a contest by Mr Davis.

He wrote the script for Mr Howard's 18 months in the leadership. Mr Maude can quote by heart Mr Howard's brilliant acceptance speech at the Saatchi Gallery. "Michael said we have got to become a party for all Britain and all Britons and understand how people want to live their lives today, that was incredibly important," Mr Maude said with approval. It is hardly surprising he knows it so well. Mr Maude drafted it.

But there is a worrying pattern. Each new Tory leader, Mr Hague, Mr Duncan Smith and now Mr Howard, has committed himself to change, but abandoned it when the opinion polls fail to move, to refocus on old Tory faithfuls such as immigration and tax cuts. Mr Maude is adamant that cannot be allowed to happen again. He agrees with Lynton Crosby, the Australian strategy expert brought in for the Conservative campaign, who said at the private meeting of MPs last week that the Tory "brand" was damaged. "You have to understand what the negatives are about the brand," said Mr Maude. "I don't like the word brand for a party - but the personality of the party - and then you have relentlessly with determined single-mindedness to ensure nobody ever says a single thing that is capable of reinforcing those negatives.

"That is the only lesson to be learnt from Blair. A lot of rubbish has been talked about should we become New Labour? No, of course we should not become New Labour. New Labour has just illustrated they have fallen to what would in most elections have been a losing share of the vote. When David Davis says for us to ape New Labour now would be absurd, I totally agree. The one lesson we have to learn from Blair - and they had lost four elections in a row, we lost only three - is that you have serious problems. You have to identify those problems with absolute stark honesty, not delude ourselves, not persuade ourselves that it is all fine, understand what the negatives are and then apply yourself completely single-mindedly to removing them."

He wants the party never to don the rose-tinted spectacles that allowed John Major to wax lyrical about warm beer and maids cycling across village greens. He wants the Tories to grab back the territory they have conceded to the Liberal Democrats in British cities.

His problem is that he admits he does not yet know how to match the Liberal Democrat rise in urban Britain. "I don't absolutely know that. We have just got to reinvigorate ourselves in the cities." He rules out adopting proportional representation. "We are intrinsically inherently opposed to a position where the government gets formed not as a result of an election but as a result of post-election negotiations," Mr Maude said.

"Tony Blair's key insight was that for Labour to be elected they needed to sound like nice, moderate Tories. Charlie Kennedy's only key insight has been the same; that is why he puts together a frontbench team with Menzies Campbell, Vince Cable and Mark Oaten. We have to be a party with the same kind of appeal but more principled, and authentically Conservative, but one that people feel lives in the same world they do."

He took comfort from the fall in Labour's share of the vote, but said the party would be making a fatal mistake if it thought that the election pendulum would swing back to the Conservatives without a fundamental change in the Tory party. "The pendulum no longer works," he said. It is three-party politics that has suspended the swing back to the Tories, and he does not think studying New Labour to produce a Labour-lite is the answer.

"We now can see with absolute clarity that Labour is not unbeatable, that Labour is now in a losing position. Our problem is us, not Labour. Our problem is that we got only 33 per cent in the polls and to win we need to get higher. That means it isn't a competition with Labour. It's not like that any more. Our destiny is in our hands. We can do it if we show people we are seriously thoughtful about providing authentic solutions to the Britain we live in today, and we are doing it not for ourselves, but for the good of the country."

A woman he met during the campaign made an impression on him. "She said she was a natural Tory, but was a lone parent. She said, 'I think of myself as a moral person, I work hard, I want to be a good role model for my kids'. I said, 'You are a natural conservative aren't you?' She said, 'Yes I am, but I don't think the Conservative Party approves of me'. That has got to change."

The CV

* BORN: 4 July 1953

* EDUCATION: Abingdon School, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and the College of Law.

* Married, five children aged nine to 18

* 1997-85: Barrister, criminal bar

* 1983: MP for North


* 1985: Appointed whip

* 1987: Minister for corporate affairs, DTI

* 1989: Minister of State, Foreign Affairs

* 1990 Financial Secretary to the Treasury (PPS to David Davis)

* 1992 Lost seat, non-executive director of Asda, director of Salomon Bros, managing director of Morgan Stanley

* 1997 MP for Horsham, shadow Culture Secretary

* 1998 Shadow Chancellor

* 2000 Shadow Foreign Secretary

* 2001 Resigned from front bench, started C-Change

* 2005 Appointed Conservative Party chairman