Portillo urges reform but hints he would serve Howard

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Michael Portillo hinted yesterday he was prepared to serve in Michael Howard's new Shadow Cabinet but insisted that the Tory Party still faced a choice of "reform or die".

Mr Howard's candidacy to lead the party, which will almost certainly be unopposed when nominations close on Thursday, received a fresh boost at the weekend when 120 MPs officially backed him. Nearly three quarters of the 166-strong parliamentary party is now on board, and 16 of those are members of the backbench 1922 Committee's executive who have to remain neutral.

Mr Portillo said that he was ready to be part of a wider shadow "team" led by Mr Howard although he was not assuming he would be invited to join the Shadow Cabinet. But the former defence secretary said that Mr Howard still had to prove that he was serious about adopting the agenda of the "modernisers" like himself who want a more inclusive party.

"I do think that the Conservative Party has a problem, particularly with its representation," he told BBC1's Breakfast with Frost yesterday. "There are too many people like me - white, middle-aged, from the south-east of England, middle class, and we do want some more variety in the party. I don't think Michael is as signed up to all that as perhaps I am."

When asked if he would take a Shadow Cabinet post, Mr Portillo said: "You know, that's entirely for Michael and I don't expect it." He said he, Kenneth Clarke and other senior figures were "going to be on Michael's team" in a broad sense. In an article published in The Observer yesterday, Mr Portillo also warned Mr Howard that the Tories had to get the voters to think they understood them and had their interests at heart. "The questions posed by modernisers, even if we are a minority, won't go away. Parties do have to reform or die," he wrote.

Given his reputation as a divisive figure, it is far from certain that Mr Portillo will be offered a job by Mr Howard when he becomes the new Tory leader. A senior Howard source said that Mr Portillo's remarks had been "noted".

Mr Howard will underline this week his own pledge to balance traditional Tory strengths such as the economy with a recognition of its more caring side. He will also highlight today the importance of small businesses in wealth creation, while tomorrow he will say that it is time to "show greater respect and give greater support" to charities.

Although rumours that Eric Forth, the shadow Leader of the Commons, was ready to stand were swiftly dismissed, the Howard campaign said yesterday that it was "taking nothing for granted" ahead of Thursday.

If he does become leader, Mr Howard will immediately end all his directorships, a spokesman for his campaign said yesterday. The pledge came after erroneous reports yesterday said he had 1.16 million shares worth more than £200,000 in a company called Finex. In fact, Mr Howard's shares are worth around £40,000. To soothe party members upset at the removal of Mr Duncan Smith, Mr Howard will continue his "dialogue" with activists this week.

In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph, he made clear that the party's widely criticised leadership rules may have to be changed. "There is a case for looking at the rules again. But this should not be our first priority. We've had enough of looking in - of looking at our own navel," he said.

The rules make clear that if Mr Howard will automatically become leader if he is the only candidate when nominations close. But he repeated that members should get a role in ratifying his leadership. Mr Howard also gained the support of Ian Taylor, the pro-European MP for Esher and Walton and a close ally of Mr Clarke.

Ann Widdecombe, a former Home Office minister, told The Independent on Sunday that Mr Howard needed to surround himself with people capable of standing up to his "juggernaut approach" to politics.

¿ David Triesman, the general secretary of the Labour Party, announced yesterday he is stepping down. Mr Triesman will leave in the new year having accomplished his three key objectives: sorting party finance, securing national headquarters and reorganising the internal staff structures.

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