Tories split over Portillo's call to soften stance on gays

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Indy Politics

Michael Portillo headed a concerted Tory drive to woo the gay vote yesterday in a tacit admission that many homosexuals had been alienated by the party's hardline stance on gay issues.

Michael Portillo headed a concerted Tory drive to woo the gay vote yesterday in a tacit admission that many homosexuals had been alienated by the party's hardline stance on gay issues.

In his speech to the Tory conference in Bournemouth, Mr Portillo called on the Conservatives to reinvent themselves as a caring, tolerant party that reached out to gays and ethnic minorities. He has avoided public comment on gay issues since disclosing last year that he had homosexual experiences as a young man.

The shadow Chancellor said: "We are for people whatever their sexual orientation. The Conservative Party isn't merely a party of tolerance; it's a party willing to accord every one of our citizens respect. Why should people respect us if we withhold respect from them?"

His call was endorsed last night by Francis Maude, the Tory spokesman on foreign affairs, who told a fringe meeting in Bournemouth: "Too many gay people have been put off by the publicity given to our position on Section 28."

Mr Maude, whose brother died of Aids, defended the Tories' support for Section 28, which bans local authorities from promoting homosexuality. But he added: "If we make that case in a way that appears to be more about hostility to homosexuality than about the protection of children, we risk making a significant minority of the population feel that we are simply not for them."

The change of strategy forms part of William Hague's drive to broaden his party's appeal and convince voters it would govern "for all the people". It represents a victory for Steven Norris, a party vice-chairman, who has been campaigning for a more inclusive approach. Mr Portillo said the Tories were "for all Britons, black Britons, British Asians, white Britons".

The Tories were shaken in August by the defection to Labour of Ivan Massow, the millionaire gay businessman and former Hague adviser, who cited the Tories' "bigotry" as one reason for his decision.

However, there was scepticism among Tory MPs last night about whether the new approach would translate into policies to help minority groups. One admitted: "The party wouldn't wear it; we are still stuck in the Stone Age."

Mr Portillo surprised the conference by making a highly personal speech rather than focusing on economic policy. In his first speech to the Tory conference since losing his Enfield Southgate seat at the 1997 general election, Mr Portillo said that he was "devastated" at the time but that the British electorate did him a favour. "My period out of Parliament was a chance to connect with the Britain of today." Although he paid a warm tribute to Mr Hague, some Tory representatives saw his address as the start of a long-term leadership bid if Mr Hague fails to win the general election. "He is no longer Son of Thatcher; he is now a One Nation Tory," said one Portillo supporter.

But some MPs said his comments on gays could backfire on him in any leadership contest. Kenneth Clarke, a former Chancellor, said the only time Mr Portillo was "cheered to the echo" by his audience came when he reiterated his opposition to the single currency.

Gerald Howarth, Tory MP for Aldershot and chairman of Parliament's Family and Child Protection Group, said Mr Portillo's move should not be followed by policy changes. He said: "It would be a completely different matter if we were to go to say that those with different lifestyles have the same rights as normal heterosexual couples. Being homosexual is clearly not the same as being in a normal heterosexual relationship... What they do in their private lives is nobody's business, as long as they don't damage children."