Cameron backs organic farmers as he tries to paint Tories green

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Indy Politics

David Cameron is hoping to exploit growing disillusionment with Tony Blair's green policies by making the environment his next strategic battleground.

The Conservative leader will use a keynote speech at the 60th anniversary conference of the Soil Association next week to support further measures to encourage organic farming.

The Tories have tradiitonally backed the free market and big business, but Mr Cameron will embrace measures championed by Zac Goldsmith, his adviser on green issues, to support small organic farmers, encourage supermarkets to offer more home-grown organic produce and avoid high mileage in transporting food to the shops.

As part of his drive to attract new supporters, Mr Cameron also sought to shed his party's anti-immigration image by calling for the scrapping of the Worker Registration Scheme, which controls workers from eastern Europe. The scheme was introduced after attacks on the Government by his predecessor, Michael Howard but Damian Green, the Tory immigration spokesman, said it was "worse than useless".

Mr Cameron announced 24 hours earlier he had recruited Bob Geldof to his party's commission reviewing action to tackle global poverty to reach out to the "white wristband generation". Last week, Oliver Letwin, Mr Cameron's head of policy, upset die-hard Tories by saying the party should try to close the gap between rich and poor by redistributing wealth.

Other steps Mr Cameron has taken to change the Tory image as a white male bastion include demanding that women candidates be selected in half of the Tories' 140 target seats. In the new year, he will announce a review of public services, including ditching the plan for "vouchers" for NHS patients to seek care in the private sector. But it is his agenda on the environment which provokes the most disquiet in Labour ranks. Within days of winning the leadership, he appointed Mr Goldsmith, the editor of The Ecologist, as the deputy chairman of a review team under the former environment minister John Gummer.

Alan Simpson, a member of the left-wing Campaign Group, accused Mr Blair of "missing a trick" by "shutting the door to Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace while Cameron is throwing his door open to them".

Green campaigners criticised Mr Blair for dropping the former environment minister, Michael Meacher, whose resistance to GM crops led to a moratorium on their use in Britain.

Mr Meacher said: "I have always felt that the environment should have a higher place on the political agenda for its own sake but it is an issue which has high salience with Middle England and young people and I think that if Mr Cameron decides to raise it, I am delighted. I think the Labour record on climate change is pretty good but I still think in areas like renewables and energy efficiency it could be a great deal better. If we get some competition, which is well directed from the Conservatives, that is thoroughly good."

Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, which has the Prince of Wales among its supporters, said: "Ever since New Labour came to power we have asked the Prime Minister to speak at one of our annual conferences. We have been disappointed that Mr Blair was not able to do so. I think it is a tremendous missed opportunity for New Labour. David Cameron appears to have his finger on the pulse of public opinion by accepting our invitation."

The Tory leader is likely to clash with Mr Goldsmith, who is opposed to a building new generation of nuclear power stations.