Hague steers a cautious path to the Tory centre

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William Hague sought to unite the Tories' rival factions yesterday by insisting the party needed both the tolerant approach demanded by Michael Portillo and the hardline stance of Ann Widdecombe.

William Hague sought to unite the Tories' rival factions yesterday by insisting the party needed both the tolerant approach demanded by Michael Portillo and the hardline stance of Ann Widdecombe.

In his speech at the close of the Tory conference, Mr Hague steered a cautious middle course between the Portillo and Widdecombe camps, who have been locked in a struggle over the future direction of the party in Bournemouth this week.

Challenging Tony Blair to call an immediate general election, Mr Hague staked his claim to be prime minister by promising to "govern for all the people" and give priority to improving education and health for the poor and disadvantaged. After internal criticism of his right-wing populism, Mr Hague's aides admitted the party now needed to "reach out" beyond its natural supporters to make further progress.

However, Mr Hague won the most applause for a long Eurosceptic section in his 50-minute speech and his support for Section 28, which bans local authorities from promoting homosexuality. He declared that marriage was the "bedrock of a stable society".

He stopped short of directly endorsing Mr Portillo's call for the Tories to be more tolerant of gays and ethnic minorities, but insisted there was "no contradiction" between such an approach and the party's recent strategy of appealing to "mainstream values" on crime, tax, asylum and Europe.

The Tory leader said: "There are some who say there is a contradiction between traditional Conservative issues and winning new Tory audiences; between tolerance for all people and championing the mainstream values of the country."

Referring to gay rights campaigners, he insisted: "Refusing simply to accept every demand from every pressure group is not in contradiction with respecting the differences between individuals; on the contrary, the championing of mainstream values is the championing of tolerance, mutual respect and the rich diversity of our country."

Mr Hague argued that his Yorkshire upbringing meant he was in touch with the country's "mainstream", and would ensure he governed for "people from every community and background". In a highly personal appeal to floating voters, he promised: "I'm in it for you." Mr Hague said: "I don't promise the earth. I don't think we'll solve every problem. I don't think we'll avoid every mistake. I won't try to start new fads or fashions. I won't claim to be creating a new era.

"I just want to bring to a people so deeply disillusioned by its Government, a party that understands their concerns, a party that shares their values, a government that believes in our country."

Attacking the "arrogance, high-handedness, cronies, sycophants, spin and waste" of the Blair Government, Mr Hague said: "It is fundamental to their decline that they have betrayed and forgotten the real people of this country. And it is fundamental to our recovery that we have become the champions of the commonsense instincts of the people of our country."

He urged the voters: "Don't give them five more years to prove that they don't know what they're doing with our schools and our hospitals."

Mr Hague accused Labour of taking Britain down the road to a European superstate, and said no party would stand up for the country's rights and independence with as much fortitude as the Tories. Appealing to young people, he said: "Whatever else you might have thought about the Conservative Party, it is only by coming with us that you can make sure there will still be a Britain."

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