Snubbing Portillo 'is peril' for Tories

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Indy Politics

A senior Conservative frontbencher has warned that the party could lose half its support unless it backs Michael Portillo's more inclusive, liberal agenda.

A senior Conservative frontbencher has warned that the party could lose half its support unless it backs Michael Portillo's more inclusive, liberal agenda.

Alan Duncan, a close ally of Mr Portillo, told Radio 4's Week in Westminster programme yesterday that "people's party political loyalties become more dilute" as they look to issues other than their income and employment prospects to determine how they vote.

"Attitudes to social problems - and indeed attitudes to society in general - are very important and people, in deciding how they're going to vote, want to know where you stand on certain things such as tolerance of alternative lifestyles," he said.

Last week Mr Portillo and the shadow Foreign Secretary, Francis Maude, resigned from the right-wing No Turning Back Group after details of a stormy meeting were leaked to newspapers. Mr Duncan, who attended the meeting, revealed: "There was a lively discussion about authoritarianism versus libertarianism in Conservative thinking and the extent to which we needed to go and seek new sorts of people to become Conservatives. It was true that Michael Portillo, Francis Maude and I took one point of view and others took a different view."

Mr Duncan added: "Some colleagues are suspicious of the need to include all sections of society in the Conservative Party."

Asked whether he welcomed the outcome of the cannabis row, in which Ann Widdecombe's "zero tolerance" policy was dumped, Mr Duncan replied: "Yes. It's made a lot of people admit that this area of politics is very important for shaping people's voting intentions. We ignore the importance of this area at our peril."

The Tory leadership is worried that the debate over liberal values could cause splits at least as damaging as those over Europe. It faces further tensions from within the right of the party. Some "Portillistas" accuse John Redwood of briefing against them and are frustrated by the reluctance of Mr Hague to embrace their agenda more enthusiastically.

In his BBC interview, Mr Duncan insisted: "If we detach ourselves from that sort of social agenda then we cut off large areas of potential support. If we cut the agenda in half we cut our support in half as well."

Mr Duncan, who was once Mr Hague's closest political ally and still speaks privately with the leader on a regular basis, added: "William will be leader for ages." Some in the Hague entourage, however, suspect that Mr Portillo and his allies are repositioning themselves for a leadership bid after the election.

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