Ties come off in bonding session

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The Independent Online
THE GAME is Bond, Tory Bond. One year after William Hague's inaugural "brain-storming and bonding" session for his party, the Conservatives were at it again yesterday, learning to love each other and the electorate in another shirt-sleeved charm offensive.

Many swapping their Westminster pinstripes for mufti, the Shadow Cabinet went on an awayday "strategy" meeting to a hotel in deepest Buckinghamshire, in an attempt to sharpen their attacks on the Government and to develop their own policies.

Much has happened since the Tories last staged a similar gathering in Eastbourne, including the Formula One tobacco advertising row, the Derek Draper affair and the haemorrhaging of thousands of jobs in the manufacturing industries.

Yet one political fact that has not changed is the Tories' poor fortune in the opinion polls, with the party scarcely denting Tony Blair's popularity.

However, after his bold decision to call a snap referendum on Europe among party members, the Tory leader arrived at Hartwell House Hotel yesterday basking in the front-page attention that stems from what his aide described as a daring "coup de theatre".

As he had just come from Lord Rothermere's funeral, Mr Hague could hardly have been expected to be wearing a beach shirt and shorts, but he immediately flung off the jacket of his sombre blue suit to join his colleagues for a photo-opportunity around the brain-storming table.

His tie loosened and his face bright with the look of a man who is finally setting the political agenda rather than following it, a rejuvenated Mr Hague rallied his troops at their first "bonding" session of the day with his plans to carry the anti-euro message across the country in the next three weeks, before the party conference.

As much as the focus groups may tell them to offer a more relaxed image, the Tories know that it is going to take more than a pair of nice slacks and choice knitwear to make themselves electable again.

The party is learning that presentation is important. Relieved aides confided that Michael Ancram, the incoming chairman, was definitely not likely to repeat last year's acoustic guitar rendition of "Bridge over Troubled Water". Phew.

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