Thatcherites groomed for the Commons

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The Independent Online
Conservative Way Forward, the Tory pressure group that has Baroness Thatcher as its president, has begun privately grooming hand-picked parliamentary candidates to increase the intake of right- wing MPs.

The group, chaired by Lord Parkinson, has held one 'high-fliers' weekend seminar where right-of- centre would-be candidates were given political lectures and advice on how to get on to the Conservative Central Office list of potential parliamentary candidiates.

The highlight of the seminar for 35 young hopefuls at the four-star Gatwick Crest Hotel was an after- dinner speech by Michael Portillo, Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Lady Thatcher's choice to succeed John Major. Among others who gave talks was Tim Collins, head of communications at Central Office.

A letter of invitation from Lord Parkinson to Tory activists known to be seeking seats said the seminar would include 'discussions on the future direction of Conservative economic and social policies' and sessions covering 'what kind of candidate the party wants, how to ensure media coverage while nursing a seat, the use of direct mail and other campaigning techniques, and creating the right impression on the doorstep and in the TV studio'.

The decision to run the seminar last October reflects a long-held grievance on the right of the party that Central Office and the network of Tory constituency agents has worked against its supporters. But it will also be viewed with some alarm on the centre-left as illustrating the systematic way Thatcherites are maintaining their base.

A copy of the agenda, seen by the Independent, shows that the sessions included 'Spending cuts or tax increases - should a Conservative Chancellor ever raise income tax?' and 'Setting the Agenda - Conservatism in the 1990s: What limit to choice?' But there were also sessions on 'Getting Noticed' - on media performance - and 'Getting Selected - What kind of candidate does the Party want on its approved list? What kind of people will be selected for Labour seats? Who stands a chance of being selected in a safe Tory seat?'

Among those taking part in the seminar - which cost, thanks to a concession negotiated with the hotel, pounds 49 including bed, breakfast, lunch and dinner with wine - were: Mary Spillane, an image consultant; Miles Young, the leader of Westminster City Council; Mike Love, Lady Thatcher's former constituency agent; Professor Kenneth Minogue and the journalist Digby Anderson. Sir Tim Bell, a prominent former adviser to Lady Thatcher, was also invited to speak but had to cry off because of a business trip to South Africa.

Although one would-be candidate said that not all those giving talks were right-wingers, another said the main purpose was to strengthen the right in the Commons. Mr Collins said last night that after being invited by Lord Parkinson he got permission to attend from Sir Norman Fowler, the party chairman. It had been an 'enjoyable and worthwhile occasion'.