The Tories in Bournemouth: Party grandees move to avoid a shift to the right

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SENIOR Conservatives led by Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, yesterday warned their party not to shift to the right in response to Labour's annexation of traditional Tory ground.

If the Conservatives lost touch with 'common-sense convictions', Mr Hurd warned, 'then we shall really find ourselves in the wilderness'.

With Michael Portillo, Secretary of State for Employment, expected today to call for a much more radical and nationalistic Tory agenda, Mr Hurd was yesterday joined in warning against any such shift by Lord Howe, the former deputy leader, and by John Biffen, the former Treasury chief secretary.

Mr Biffen said 'contrived radicalism is not what the Tory party now needs', while Lord Howe urged the party to stand on 'the new common ground'. The British people, he said, were 'not likely to applaud a party that wishes to wrap itself in a Union Jack with a view to burial at sea'. Equally, tax increases could only come 'when spending and borrowing has palpably been controlled and curtailed'.

The sharpest words, however, came from Mr Hurd, who combined his warning with an attack on Tony Blair, accusing him of 'one of the most brazen squats in political history'. Mr Blair, he said, had looked on the works of British socialism and despaired, deciding instead to adopt the well-cared for house next door, giving it a new name and different coloured coat of paint.

The Conservative choice in such circumstances must be to 'resist the temptation to say that because Labour has come closer to our traditional ideas, we must wander off ourselves into the desert . . . We shall not regain lost support by gambling on the extremes of policy,' Mr Hurd warned. People wanted tax cuts, but only when affordable. They knew cutting themselves off from Europe was foolish. And they wanted privatisation argued case by case, not adopted as dogma. The Conservatives had to show they had 'an agenda for change which goes with the grain of what people want' - and the reforms on education, the BBC, the Civil Service and the Post Office showing that was indeed the case. But he warned that while 'a community which denies capitalism is a dull and doleful place', it was clear that capitalism without community is an empty husk.

'Capitalism does not on its own possess some supreme moral quality, regardless of its consequences for people. It is a technique rather than a religion,' he told a meeting of the Tory Reform Group.

Lord Howe struck a similar theme at another fringe meeting, saying the Conservatives had slain so many sacred cows - local authorities, the professions, societies, and universities - that it was time now 'to give some of these blessed animals a rest'.

Mr Biffen, while differing with Lord Howe over Europe and noting with approval John Major's more Euro-sceptical rhetoric, said the next election was not likely to be fought 'against fundamental challenges about the direction of British economic, social and political policies. Very few Conservatives believe they have to have a revised and substantially radical policy all of their own to distinguish themselves from the Opposition.'

(Photograph omitted)