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Minister calls for party to 'listen': Poll defeats blamed on presentation not policy

THE GOVERNMENT delivered its definitive response to the by-election voters of Christchurch yesterday when David Hunt, Secretary of State for Employment, said that while it was imperative for ministers to listen, the Conservatives' problem was one of presentation rather than policy.

'If we don't listen, we die; if we don't listen, we lose, and therefore we must listen,' Mr Hunt told BBC Radio's The World this Weekend.

But he said that while there had been some 'presentational' mistakes, 'I hope people recognise one feature of this government is that we don't get up every morning and look at the polls and look at decisions in by-elections before deciding what to do'.

Mr Hunt said: 'What did not come across to me when I was in Newbury and Christchurch was that the people there saw an alternative government. They want this government improving. The people feel that the Conservative Party has lost touch with their interests.'

However, that point was underlined by Angela Browning, MP for Tiverton and a parliamentary private secretary to Mr Hunt's department, who said that if the Government did not react to the public grievances about high-level water charges and VAT on domestic fuel, 'then there could be quite disastrous political consequences'.

Having appeared to concede that the electorate was troubled by the substance of policy, however, Mr Hunt repeated what the Prime Minister and the Chancellor had already said - there was no question of reversing the decision to apply VAT to household fuel and power bills.

He also rejected the suggestion made by one ministerial colleague over the weekend, that the voters might prefer more sensitive ways of raising the annual pounds 2.6bn VAT revenue that will eventually come from domestic fuel bills.

Abolition of the VAT exemption on financial and insurance transactions would raise pounds 3.3bn, and pounds 2.6bn precisely would be raised by ending the zero-rating of international passenger transport; books, newspapers and magazines; and larger ships and aircraft. 'I don't agree with that,' Mr Hunt said. 'We have just had a debate in the House of Commons, just a matter of days ago, when we had a vote approving our proposals on VAT.'

Mr Hunt said that the Government had to explain to people that the less well-off would be receiving help towards meeting their increased fuel costs; to be announced by the Chancellor in his unified Budget statement on 30 November.

'The real message is that we're not in any way getting our message across to the electorate,' Mr Hunt said. 'What we now have to do is to sharpen up our presentation so that we do get across our policies in language that everyone can understand, and we will then see our situation improving.'