Portillo's call for tolerance widens rift on gay issues

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Indy Politics

The Tory attempt to portray a more caring pre-election image ran into trouble yesterday amid a widening split over the party's stance on gay issues.

The Tory attempt to portray a more caring pre-election image ran into trouble yesterday amid a widening split over the party's stance on gay issues.

Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Home Secretary, rejected the call by Michael Portillo for the party to be more tolerant towards gays, and Steven Norris, a Tory vice-chairman, accused the party of "homophobic nonsense" by supporting Section 28, which prevents councils promoting homosexuality.

An intense debate over the party's direction has broken out at the Bournemouth conference, with William Hague seeking a significant shift to a brand of "caring Conservatism". He told aides Mr Portillo made a "great speech" on Tuesday. But other shadow ministers said Mr Portillo should have stuck to the economic issues normally addressed by the shadow Chancellor.

Miss Widdecombe pointedly declined to endorse Mr Portillo. "What I believe is that the state should have a preferred model, that it should promote the traditional family," she said.

But Mr Norris, who came a strong second to Ken Livingstone when he ran on a "caring Conservative" ticket in the London mayoral election in May, said: "It is perfectly clear that innumerable gay people feel alienated from the Conservative Party. Our attitude towards Section 28 sends a very clear message to the gay community. It is homophobic nonsense, and the gay community knows it."

Mr Norris welcomed this week's change of tack. "I have been very pleased that the party does take on board - from William Hague downwards - this need to be inclusive and reaching out to everybody in this country who wants to participate," he said.

Last night Mr Hague refused to say whether he believed a homosexual lifestyle was equal to a heterosexual one, saying people should make their own judgements. "We accept that people choose to lead their lives in different ways. But we are not in favour of single issue groups determining the policy of it."

Mr Hague defended his support for Section 28 on Channel 4 News, saying: "Many people in Britain are relaxed with different lifestyles or orientations, but most people would not repeal Section 28, so the Conservative Party is speaking up for most people of Britain." Gregor Mackay, Mr Hague's former press secretary, suggested the Tory change of strategy may have been left too late.

"It would have been sensible to have done this one year or two years earlier and during the course of the Parliament build up our credibility on a wider range of issues than they have done so far."

Mr Mackay hoped that the Hague-Portillo view would "prevail over other members of the Shadow Cabinet who are more doubtful about it".

Ivan Massow, the gay businessman who was a Hague adviser before defecting to Labour in August, dismissed the Tories' repositioning as "unbelievably cynical".

He said: "You only have to look at the voting record and the way the Conservative Party has behaved over the last few years to know they just cannot back up their words with actions. I should think the call for One Nation is unbelievably cynical - this idea that they can just suddenly put up their hands and say today we are inclusive because we need that extra 10 per cent margin in votes. They just can't cut it."