Roll up, roll up: old ideas for sale, nothing new on offer

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William Hague will today urge his party to face `A Fresh Future' with courage. Our political editor, in Blackpool, looks ahead to a difficult week for the Conservatives With the Tories still shell-shocked by their May election defeat, their new leader will today launch a debate about the party's future with an appeal for them not to be afraid of "reform and renewal" - the buzz- words for the week.

Last night, in a speech to party agents, Mr Hague - who made his stunning debut as a conference speaker in this town 20 years ago, at the age of 16 - said: "This is one of the most important conferences in the history of the Conservative Party.

"This week, we will take stock after our terrible election defeat and start down the road to the recovery."

He was going to offer party members a contract, with guaranteed rights for all.

That would mean a vote in the election of party leaders; representation on the party's new governing body; a vote in the selection of Westminster parliamentary and European parliamentary candidates; a disciplinary procedure that would protect the integrity of the party, preventing it being brought into disrepute; and a vote "on the main programme on which the party will fight the next election."

One senior party source hinted last night that elements of the manifesto could be put to single issue referendums of party members.

It was "not unthinkable", he said, that party members might be allowed to vote on policy towards a European single currency.

Today, after Mr Hague's leadership and his reform principles, have been broadly endorsed by a vote of party members, the new leader will tell the party that it must not be afraid to oppose the new Labour Government where it is wrong, and agree with it when it is right.

John Major, the former Prime Minister, will speak before Mr Hague this morning, and a consultation green paper, setting out the outline of proposals for reform, will be issued at lunchtime.

When he arrived at the headquarters Imperial Hotel yesterday - without his fiancee - Mr Hague said: "It's going to be a momentous week for the Conservative Party.

"I'm asking for support and approval for the biggest changes in the party in 120 years - changes which we need to renew and rebuild our party for the future.

"So it's going to be an historic week for the party, but I hope it's also going to be a very honest conference here in Blackpool this week - honest about reasons for our defeat in the general election, honest with each other about the changes we have to make and honest with the country about what we're going to do in the future."

However, when he was then asked about Europe, Mr Hague defied all the evidence, and said: "There are no splits at all on that. This party is going to rebuild and be renewed - and be renewed together."

But the underlying rift on Europe was exposed earlier in separate interviews with Kenneth Clarke, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Peter Lilley, the shadow Chancellor.

In spite of an appeal from Mr Clarke for unity in conference week, he said his own position on the European single currency had to remain open . "I don't know what the economic situation will be on which I will form my opinion," he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

Having contradicted the leadership line - with Mr Hague insisting that he will fight the next election on a manifesto that opposes single currency entry - Mr Clarke then added: "The last thing we want this week is the party tearing itself apart now on what our position might be."

Trying to straddle that divide, Mr Lilley said of Mr Clarke's position: "Ken Clarke has said he's against us joining now, or indeed for a number of years ahead."

He told the BBC Radio 4 programme The World at One that he agreed with that position - even though Mr Clarke has made it clear that he does not agree with the leadership embargo on membership for as much as a decade ahead.

Lord Parkinson, the party chairman, cast a further shadow over Mr Hague's day, with an interview in which he said that the leader's open mind on Labour plans for the abolition of hereditary peerages was "a thought", not a policy. "I personally think that it would be a mistake," he added.

As Conservative Party leader's "thoughts', spoken aloud, tend to be policy, the party chairman's remark appeared to be something of a rebuke for an injudicious comment

Lord Parkinson said the matter had not yet been discussed by the Shadow Cabinet. "Maybe my view won't prevail," he said, "and I will accept; and I hope they would accept if my view did prevail."