Ancram launches attack on Portillo as fight gets nasty

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Indy Politics

The battle to become leader of the Conservative Party turned nasty yesterday as Michael Ancram, the former Tory chairman, made a strong attack on Michael Portillo as he launched a campaign to stop him succeeding William Hague.

As Mr Portillo sketched out his political philosophy, Mr Ancram reflected the opposition inside the party to the shadow Chancellor becoming leader as he announced his decision to enter the contest. He presented himself as the "unity" candidate who would renew rather than reinvent the party.

Mr Ancram rejected Mr Portillo's call for the Tories to embark on a programme of fundamental change and criticised his personal style. "This is no time to seek to match spin with spin, or stardust with stardust. It is no time to strike out against the grain of our party and its traditions," he said.

The outgoing party chairman lavished praise on Mr Hague, as it became clear that some key Hague loyalists would join his "stop Portillo" campaign.

Mr Ancram said: "No one, inside or outside our membership, should be led to believe that we have not meant what we have said in recent years or that loyalty to past policies and leaderships will suddenly become regarded as a sin.

"I am not standing to fulfill long-held personal ambition, but to offer the Conservative Party the chance to choose the path of unity, to grasp the opportunity for reflection rather than hasty action and to renew our appeal without tearing up our roots."

Mr Ancram's surprise decision to enter the race raised fresh doubts about whether Kenneth Clarke, the former Chancellor, would stand. As he returned from a trip to Vietnam last night, some supporters regretted his absence in the past week and feared he may have been eclipsed by Mr Ancram. "We didn't expect Ancram to declare and it certainly gives us pause for thought," one Clarke ally said.

Mr Ancram is likely to attract the support of some MPs who planned to back Mr Clarke and won the immediate backing of Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Home Secretary. She mocked Mr Portillo's decision to unveil his personal manifesto at an expensive restaurant. "When you talk about entering the real world against a backdrop of a champagne breakfast, it raises questions," she said.

The Portillo camp hit back at the Earl of Ancram, son of the 12th Marquess of Lothian, saying he bore a responsibility as party chairman for the Tories' crushing general election defeat. "If the party wants a comfort blanket, Ancram is the man. He is the no change candidate. If the party wants to put off change until we suffer a third defeat, he's the man," said one Portillo supporter. Another added: "It would be like a company one stage away from going bust deciding to appoint a receiver to handle its liquidation instead of someone who can turn the business around."

However, some Tory MPs said they were attracted by Mr Ancram as a caretaker figure who could unite the party and lead it through a referendum on the single currency. They fear that a leader who called for a "no" vote on the euro and lost would be "damaged goods" at the next general election.

Iain Duncan Smith, the shadow Defence Secretary, also took a sideswipe at Mr Portillo. He unveiled his campaign headquarters in Westminster – in the same house where in 1995 Mr Portillo was said to have installed telephone lines for his eventually aborted bid to challenge John Major.

The house, in Lord North Street near Conservative Central Office, is owned by the businessman Greville Howard, who is backing Mr Duncan Smith. Mr Duncan Smith suggested the Tories needed to downgrade the single currency as an issue in order to address the matters which most concerned the voters.

He said: "The party has in many senses made its mind up about the euro. I am talking about the policies on a much more important spectrum to the public out there. We really have to re-engage on things they are worried about – their healthcare, their failure to get choice in education, they are worried about their pensions, why they are not being encouraged to save."

David Davis, the other candidate, called for radical reform of hospitals and schools, warning that public services would be condemned to "perpetual decline" unless politicians changed the way the state delivered them. Mr Davis told the Commons the NHS should be "personalised, not privatised", with the state guaranteeing free care.