Holding thering in the Tories' big tent

The Conservatives are about no-nonsense politics, says Michael Ancram. But he's vague on real policy
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Indy Politics

Sir Michael Ancram is putting the finishing touches to the speech that will open his party's conference in Bournemouth tomorrow. He sits at his desk at Conservative Central Office surrounded by family photos and one of himself playing the guitar. He will be taking the guitar to the seaside and might be caught playing it, if the photo opportunity arises. For now he is focusing on the new political tune his party will be playing this week.

Sir Michael Ancram is putting the finishing touches to the speech that will open his party's conference in Bournemouth tomorrow. He sits at his desk at Conservative Central Office surrounded by family photos and one of himself playing the guitar. He will be taking the guitar to the seaside and might be caught playing it, if the photo opportunity arises. For now he is focusing on the new political tune his party will be playing this week.

"We are the party of the mainstream majority," he tells us. "We can't be categorised as right wing or extreme." After last year's conference, which was aimed at bolstering the party's core support, Sir Michael is looking outwards. He is trying to erect the Conservatives' own big tent.

So concerned are the Tories to appear a party of substance rather than image that they will not even be providing activists with union flags to parade at the end of the conference. Labour now flies the flag at the end of its annual gatherings, an unlikely reversal of roles.

"We will be concentrating on the message rather than spin all the way through," Ancram says. "The aim of our conference set is to show that we want to unclutter everything we do. We want people to hear what we are talking about. The set will be simple without gimmicks. People will hear serious speeches from a government in waiting instead. We will be showing that we're talking to the mainstream majority and the mainstream majority is responding to us." The term "mainstream majority" recurs several times. "Tony Blair and others have tried to paint us as extremist. The more he talks about us in those terms the more he is worried about our ability to connect with the mainstream majority."

How will they show they have made the connection? "We're going to show the breadth and range of policies, with greater emphasis on social policies, addressing the problems of hard-working families."

Senior party officials admit privately that they were in danger of being seen as a single-issue party, against further integration with Europe and not much more. There will be less focus on Europe this week than there was in Blackpool last year when party leaders gave the impression that they would tear up the Treaty of Rome while remaining a prominent member of the EU.

There is a centrist Conservative pressure group that takes as its name Sir Michael's favourite term. Conservative Mainstream will be holding a fringe meeting tomorrow night that will be addressed by Sir John Major. Evidently Sir Michael is acting fast to prevent the former Prime Minister from making embarrassing waves. He has spoken to Major about the speech and, in spite of reports to the contrary, is confident that it will be loyal to the leadership.

"John will be calling on those at the meeting to get behind the party leadership and support us in our efforts to win the election. John's a friend of mine and we talk a lot. He's made it clear to me he will be calling on people to support the leadership." A ritualistic declaration of loyalty from Major, of course, does not preclude him from also making a coded attack. But Ancram seems confident that Major, having been the victim of disloyalty from previous Conservative Party leaders, will not throw daggers at his successor in a pre-election party conference.

Leading members of the Mainstream group have just written a pamphlet stressing that Conservatives should not exclude single parents, nor apply Lord Tebbit's famous "Cricket test". "We've made it absolutely clear we are an inclusive party," Ancram says.

Sir Michael's broad message signals a significant shift in tone. The details of the policies that will accompany it remain more vague. The Conservatives have promised tax and spending cuts, but have offered few figures so far. "We are not going to be 'à la carte' in terms of our tax and spending policies," he insists.

But they have already announced a cut in fuel tax and a commitment to equal Labour's spending on health. "Yes, but on fuel we saw an overshoot on revenues which varied from £3bn to £13bn according to different analysts. There was a particular problem with fuel and unexpected revenue, so we announced we would cut fuel tax by 3p a litre. On health we have said consistently that we would match Labour's spending. On the other areas we will have to wait until we see the balance of the economy."

A party on the eve of power normally has a message that can be easily distilled. What is the Tories'? "We are saying, you've been let down. Promises weren't delivered. We are going to talk about the real things. We're not going to pull the wool over your eyes. What we offer, we can deliver and the things we will deliver on will matter to you. The politics of the 21st century are about telling things as they are."

This is when he really warms to his theme. "The voters are changing because they believed that chocolate box cover of New Labour. Now they have discovered the chocolates weren't there or weren't what they thought they were."

It is in this context, the spin attack, that he attempts to portray William Hague in a positive light. The latest poll findings suggest that Mr Hague's personal ratings are as low as ever, even if the parties have moved closer together. The Conservatives' internal polling on their leader must come up with the same sort of grim figures. But they calculate that if they can make the spin label stick on the Government, Mr Hague will be seen in a different light. "William's skill is to tell people bluntly what he thinks. People are fed up with spin. They think they are being deceived. It's fraudulent."

Sir Michael does not enthuse too much about the "No" vote in the Danish referendum on the single currency. The Conservatives are arguing that Labour will bounce Britain into the euro if they win the next election. The result in Denmark suggests that it is not possible to bounce voters into making a decision the government seeks. He still insists that is what Mr Blair would do.

The Tory conference slogan is "Believing in Britain". Those words were framed partly with Europe in mind. We will protect you from Brussels, they imply. So even if the issue of Europe does not play such a prominent role during the week, it will be there implicitly hovering above the stage.

The three former prime ministers, whose careers were defined by Europe, will be there also. "Yes, they're all coming," Sir Michael says. He pauses, unable to disguise his relief. "But on different days."

There will be no awkward seating arrangements as there were a couple of years ago, when Baroness Thatcher and Sir Edward Heath found themselves sitting within inches of each other, on uncomfortable chairs. "I was sitting between them on that occasion," Sir Michael says with a fleeting look of horror as he relives the memory.

The polls have changed the political mood since then. The Conservative Party chairman has the chance to be upbeat now without sounding silly. Whether the mainstream voters will join Sir Michael's big tent depends partly on the details of the still obscure economic policies. But he claims that the Conservatives are ready for government. "It's all to play for now. We always knew that once we managed to close the gap, and when people began to listen to us, that we could go on and win."

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