Hague promises to double pensions

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The biggest shake-up in the state pension since the war will be offered by Tory leader William Hague this week as part of an attempt to retake some of the centre ground from Tony Blair.

The biggest shake-up in the state pension since the war will be offered by Tory leader William Hague this week as part of an attempt to retake some of the centre ground from Tony Blair.

Mr Hague will offer people under 30 the prospect of doubling their state pensions - equivalent today of raising pensions from £67.50 a week to £130 a week - by opting to pay their National Insurance contributions into a fund linked to the stock market.

The move is part of a strategy revealed in an interview in today's Independent on Sunday by Michael Ancram, the Tory Party chairman, ahead of the next general election. The Tories had it "all to play for" he said, and would be focusing on social policy under the banner "the government in waiting".

An opinion poll today shows Labour has regained a 6 point lead over the Conservatives, but the Tory leadership is planning to use this week's party conference in Bournemouth - almost certainly the last before an election - to repackage the Tories as a "One Nation" party on the centre-ground and shed the hard right anti-foreigner, anti-Europe image.

Mr Hague is seeking to rub salt into Mr Blair's wounds after his pensions defeat last week and outflank Chancellor Gordon Brown who is working on plans to offer the poorest pensioners around £100 a week in his Budget.

The Tory leader has ordered that the scheme should be voluntary, but last night Alistair Darling, the Social Security Secretary, accused him of seeking to "privatise the state pension". He said: "Within five years, the National Insurance fund would be totally undermined. Until they tell us how they would finance it, the Tories have no credibility."

The scheme closely follows the ideas of Frank Field, who was sacked by Mr Blair as social security minister for "thinking the unthinkable" about pensions.

Last night, the Tory plan was welcomed by an independent think tank. "It is time for somebody to bite the bullet," said the Institute of Economic Affairs. "Our surveys show there is an astonishing high level of acceptance among young people that they are going to make a contribution. We welcome this proposal,"

The Tory leadership is also seeking to answer criticism that its front bench is boring, and faceless, by raising the profiles of Mr Hague's team. Each shadow minister has been told to rebut Labour claims - stepped up this weekend - that they will cut spending by £16bn if they win power.

Mr Hague will avoid last year's embarrassment, when the ex-prime ministers - Lady Thatcher and Ted Heath - sat uneasily on the platform together. John Major and his two predecessors will take the platform on separate days.

Mr Major yesterday quashed reports that he would use a speech on Monday night to attack Mr Hague's leadership. And he said he would vote no in an early referendum on the euro.

That will disappoint some "One Nation" Tories led by Stephen Dorrell, chairman of the Tory Mainstream group, who are hosting a fringe meeting for his speech.

The arrival of the Tory "keep the pound" bandwagon is listed as one of the highlights of the conference week, raising fears among moderates that the eurosceptics will be encouraged to push Mr Hague further after the Danish rejection of the euro, into a policy of saying "never" to the euro, rather than "no" for a Parliament.

Mr Dorrell told the IoS: "Tory Mainstream group is not anti-Hague. It is pro-Tory. The majority of Mainstream are europhiles but it isn't either the europhile or eurosceptic argument that is going to win the next election - it is demonstrating how a centre-right mainstream Tory government is going to improve people's lives."

A Tory Mainstream document to be published this week calls for more spending on public services to be put before tax cuts.

"We did not lose the last General Election because we were insufficiently right-wing," says the report.

Written by former minister Ian Taylor and Damian Green, a member of Hague's front bench team, it attcks John Redwood's remarks on single parents and Lord Tebbit on race.

"Our well-publicised criticism of single-parent families were particularly ill-judged... It is possible to gay and Conservative, to be a single parent and Conservative and it should not need stating that it is possible to belong to any ethnic group and be Conservative. There can be no cricket tests in the Conservative Party," it warns.

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