Big names boycott Tory 'coronation'

Party conference: Heath, Major, Thatcher, Clarke and Heseltine among absentees from Iain Duncan Smith's Blackpool debut
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Tory supporters of Ken Clarke's leadership bid will boycott Iain Duncan Smith's "crowning" at the Conservative annual conference this week in Blackpool.

Failed leadership challenger Mr Clarke has made it clear he will not be attending, saying that he did not want to be a "poor man's Margaret Thatcher". Michael Heseltine, the former deputy prime minister, has also bowed out as host of the annual Tory Reform Group dinner.

Sir Edward Heath is understood to be staying away after retiring from Parliament. And former PMs John Major and Margaret Thatcher will not be there. Of former Tory leaders, only William Hague will be at conference, and he is expected to make a short statement from the platform. Ian Taylor, one of Mr Clarke's key supporters, has pulled out of a Britain in Europe fringe meeting he was due to address.

The decision by a number of prominent Tories from the opposing Clarke and Portillo camps to boycott the proceedings will add to the deflated feeling surrounding this year's conference – the first since the general election defeat.

The new Conservative leadership is determined to run a traditional – and after the events of 11 September – sombre conference. In a letter to delegates, party chairman David Davis made it clear he expected "the content of our conference will be serious and business-like as befits a patriotic party".

They have even banned "black tie" functions, asking organisers to change the dress code to "lounge suits".

The theme of the conference will be "security abroad, security at home" and will be focused on debate about the international situation since 11 September, and personal security in the UK. It will include a full-day debate on the economy and public services.

Mr Duncan Smith will make it clear that he wants to take a "pragmatic" approach to public services and will announce that his shadow health team will be going to Europe on a fact-finding trip to discover better ways of keeping waiting lists and times down.

In an interview yesterday, he said the Tories must move on from Thatcherism, stop their preoccupation with Europe and develop a new "quality of life" agenda over issues affecting ordinary voters.

But they have been unable to stifle the behind-the-scenes sniping over Europe, which has become a perennial feature of Tory Party conference. Mr Duncan Smith's critics remain unhappy at the lurch to the right with his appointment of an uncompromising eurosceptic front bench team.

A Tory source said: "It's going to be a non-event from the left's point of view. There will be nothing but a load of right-wing nutters running round the place basically." The Tory leader is also facing a split among his MEPs. Up to six Conservative MEPs are fighting a move by right-wingers to break from the European People's Party and sit with the allegedly "neo-fascist" Alleanza Nazionale.