Howard's strategy is slated by leading Tory moderniser

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A leading Tory moderniser has unleashed a blistering attack on Michael Howard's election strategy by demanding "root and branch" reform to drag the party into the centre ground of British politics.

A leading Tory moderniser has unleashed a blistering attack on Michael Howard's election strategy by demanding "root and branch" reform to drag the party into the centre ground of British politics.

John Bercow, the former shadow cabinet member, condemns the Conservative manifesto as "embarrassingly thin", calls the decision to brand Tony Blair a liar as "extraordinarily unwise", and describes the party's focus on immigration as "at best obsessive and at worst repellent".

Writing in The Independent today, he attacks Tory plans to subsidise private education and medical care as "a counsel of despair" and warns the party has "gone wobbly" on civil liberties by backing ID cards.

In comments that lay bare the divisions over the future direction of the party, he called for a fundamental reform of party structures. He said: "It is outrageous that respected Europhile and socially liberal colleagues should be threatened with the sack by cliques of activists who are completely unrepresentative of the country."

He added: "Blimpish reactionaries have long rubbished the idea of reaching out by grumbling about 'political correctness gone mad'. This must stop. Positively appealing beyond our base of ageing, white, male, rural and southern supporters is necessary and urgent."

Mr Bercow's criticism of the party's record came as the war for the Conservative leadership went into full swing yesterday and early candidates for the job began to set out their stalls.

Tim Yeo resigned as shadow Environment Secretary to argue for "extensive change" in Tory thinking and Nicholas Soames stood down as shadow Defence Secretary to seek a senior role on the party's ruling backbench 1922 Committee.

Mr Yeo refused to rule out standing for the leadership, insisting the party "needs to strike out on a different direction to the one it took in 2001 and I think by doing so we can help people understand that we are completely different."

He said: "The party that was very successful in the 1980s has changed into one that can be very successful in the 21st century."

Meanwhile, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former Foreign Secretary, emerged as the main rival to the front-runner David Davis, as MPs revealed that allies of the shadow Home Secretary had been quietly canvassing support even before the general election was called.

Yesterday, Michael Howard hailed the party's new intake of 54 MPs as paving the way for a Conservative victory. Crucially, the new MPs represent a quarter of the parliamentary Tory party; potentially a powerful and unknown block in the forthcoming leadership contest.

One Tory MP said he had received phone calls from supporters of David Davis sounding him out on his position on the eve of the election. He said: "They were very keen that a leadership battle should take place as soon as possible so Malcolm Rifkind shouldn't consolidate his position."

He predicted the modernisers could gather around Mr Yeo, who has argued that the party is out of touch on issues such as homosexuality and single-parent families. Mr Yeo also refused to mention immigration and asylum on his campaign literature.

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