Howard closes door on Thatcher legacy

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The Conservative Party will finally turn its back on Thatcherism by declaring that it strongly supports multiculturalism, community and society in a statement setting out its values.

Michael Howard hopes that the statement will modernise his party's approach for the 21st century while remaining true to its traditional philosophy. The move, one of his last acts before he stands down as the party's leader by the end of the year, is bound to draw parallels with Tony Blair's decision to ditch Labour's Clause IV, which supported public ownership.

The new Tory document, discussed by the Conservative Party's board yesterday, says the Tories want "a strong community and cohesive society" - a departure from Margaret Thatcher's much-criticised view that there is "no such thing as society".

The draft statement also aims to broaden the party's appeal and to scotch the suggestion that its policy on immigration leaves it open to the charge of racism. It says it is committed to serving the entire nation and is "open to and respectful of everyone in Britain, regardless of their background, race, sex or religion".

The declaration does not mention tax cuts, but it gives a firm nod in that direction by saying the Tories are in favour of "smaller government" and the "enterprise culture". It also tries to bury the sleaze scandals which engulfed the last Tory government by pledging that the party would uphold the highest possible standards.

Mr Howard hopes it will ensure that he puts a modernising stamp on his party before he stands down. Some senior Tories were sceptical, describing the exercise as "too late".

One said: "It seems odd to produce a statement of values after an election and just before you stand down as leader. We spent the election banging on about immigration and now we seem to be saying we didn't really mean to be so nasty."

The declaration will require approval in separate ballots among Tory MPs and the 800 grassroots activists who sit on the party's national convention. Last night Tory MPs voted for a change in the rules under which Mr Howard's successor will be chosen, which will give the final say to MPs instead of party members. Under the proposals, leadership candidates would require nominations from 10 per cent of Tory MPs to enter the race. The convention would then vote on the contenders and rank them in order of preference. The grassroots' verdict would be published to give a clear signal to MPs, who would make the final choice.

The new leadership rules will require approval by a two-thirds majority among MPs and the convention in a ballot to be completed by September. The leadership election would then take place after the party's annual conference in October.

The package of reforms discussed by the board yesterday include some measures to give more freedom to local Tory associations after criticism that national party bosses were trying to impose a "top down", centralising blueprint that would deter volunteers at local level. The reforms will be discussed by the Shadow Cabinet today.

Several senior figures are worried that the Tories' debate on the leadership rules and other internal reforms will let Mr Blair off the hook and give the voters the impression that the party is "navel-gazing" rather than addressing the issues facing the country.