Sale of Central Office marks final break from the party's past

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Indy Politics

Michael Howard's radical break with the Tory party's past continued apace yesterday when he announced the sale of Conservative Central Office.

The scene of six general election victories under four prime ministers, the premises in Smith Square, Westminster, are a potent symbol of the party's triumphs and failures over the past 45 years. But Mr Howard showed little sentiment when he revealed that the party's board had agreed unanimously to sell the building and move to "more suitable" office accommodation.

At the same time, the new leader is expected to extend his overhaul of the Conservative Party with a purge of senior spin doctors.

Nick Wood, the party's head of news under both William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith, is expected to be offered a pay-off within weeks as Mr Howard makes his mark.

The sale of the long lease of Central Office, which will take place as soon as possible, is intended to raise about £6m, much of which will be ploughed into the Tories' general election fighting fund.

Mr Howard said he was "tremendously impressed by the unity of purpose" shown at the board meeting that agreed the sale. "There is a great determination to work together across the Conservative Party," he said.

The party first moved into Central Office in 1958, less than a year after the five-storey block was built. Within a year, Harold Macmillan was celebrating victory.

Most election nights since then have been dominated by pictures of eager party workers hanging out of the windows of the building, with Margaret Thatcher's third successive triumph in 1987 perhaps the most memorable.

In recent years Central Office's failings have become more apparent, in particular its cramped rooms and lack of adequate press conference and meeting facilities.

Since John Major's disastrous 1997 defeat, it has also become associated with failure, infighting and intrigue. Both William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith had to announce their resignations on its steps.

A party spokesman said the decision was not purely financial; the building was no longer appropriate for a modern political party. "It is a 1950s building with a Georgian façade and is not a suitable office environment for a party in the 21st century," he said. "We have not identified a new headquarters, we do not even know where it would be or whether we would rent or buy."

Raymond Monbiot, chairman of the National Convention and deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, said: "The decision taken today is just one more element in streamlining the Conservative Party machine for fighting the next general election."

Labour impressed its opponents when it decided to buy its new headquarters on Old Queen Street outright instead of renting Millbank Tower at increasing cost.

How long the lease has to run on Central Office is not known, but the Conservatives are facing severe financial pressure. In the nine months to the end of December 2002 party expenditure reportedly exceeded income by £1.5m.

The Independent has learnt that, in a separate move, the party is preparing to advertise externally for a new media chief. "We want a big hitter, someone who will reflect Michael's new approach," a source said.

Bill Clare, Liam Fox's press officer and the media brains behind Mr Howard's lightning campaign, was seen by many as the perfect candidate to head the new Central Office press team.

However, Mr Clare is understood to have decided to stay with Dr Fox and help with the new party chairman's task of getting the party's message out to the country.

Georgian setting for Tory triumphs and disasters

For 45 years the Georgian façade of the Conservative Party's headquarters at number 32 Smith Square in Westminster has provided a backdrop for some of the party's most defining moments.

TheTories moved in in 1958 ­ when Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister ­ from nearby Victoria Street.

In 1970 it was the scene of alleged plotting when Edward Heath won the keys to Number 10 for the Tories against the trend of the opinion polls. Then the Labour Party HQ was across the road and the two sides used to drink together in the Marquis of Granby pub. There were claims that a Labour mole had sold the election plans for £25,000.

On 12 February 1975, Margaret Thatcher turned up at Smith Square for her first press conference as leader in a yellow sports car, flashing V for victory signs to waiting supporters.

Four years later she was outside on election night after becoming the Western world's first woman prime minister.

In 1987, after winning a third term, she stood on the steps holding up three fingers in jubilation.

William Hague installed a kitchen table in the entrance hall, as a symbol of hard work, but it proved fruitless ­ his resignation statement as leader was made from the steps of the building.

Andrew Johnson