PM to hold `fireside chats' with activists

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The Independent Online
The Prime Minister is to hold a "question-and-answer" session at Conservative conference in Bournemouth next month, in order to present him as relaxed and confident in unscripted debate with party activists.

The session was to have been unveiled as a surprise addition to the published agenda on the Wednesday of the conference, and will take place as well as John Major's set-piece speech as party leader on Friday.

Trying out a format which both main-party leaders are likely to use during the general election campaign, Mr Major will take questions from representatives while sitting on a dais in front of the stage in the conference hall.

The session will close with a five- or 10-minute "fireside chat" in which Mr Major will talk to the audience in a conversational way without notes.

The format is also scheduled to be used by Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, instead of his traditional ministerial speech on Tuesday and by Brian Mawhinney, the Tory party chairman, on Wednesday morning.

Dr Mawhinney is listed on the agenda as leading a debate on "Our Nation's Future", the consultation exercise launched by the Prime Minister among grassroots Tories. But this could be the slot that Tory mangers intend to use for Mr Major's innovative session.

The question-and-answer format was first tried at the Tories' spring mini-conference, Central Council, in Harrogate, and was judged a success by party managers.

Tory Central Office believes that the Prime Minister comes across best when he is speaking directly and informally to people, rather than delivering a written address. At the last two conferences, Mr Major has spoken from notes, without the words scrolling up on a glass teleprompter in front of him, and in a fairly low-key style.

But during the last election his performances on a bar stool on a special set "in the round" received mixed reviews, and late in the campaign there was a sharp change in strategy as Mr Major took to his soapbox for a less managed, governmental feel.

Labour managers have also been looking at ways of presenting the Labour leader Tony Blair, both at their conference next week, and during the election campaign. They are likely to be based on the success of Mr Blair's face-to-face, shirt-sleeves "in the round" sessions with party members and business leaders.