The Tories in Bournemouth: Portillo primes his political prospects

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MICHAEL Portillo set about underpinning his personal political future yesterday as he urged right- wing Euro-sceptics to 'live with' current policy on the single currency in the run-up to the 1996 Inter-Governmental Conference on the future of the European Union.

The Secretary of State for Employment also received his second standing ovation of the day with a fringe meeting declaration of the 'clear blue water' that still stretched between the Tories and the new-look Labour Party after 15 years of Conservative government.

He disappointed the most fervent of the party's Euro-sceptical wing at a Conservative Way Forward event by putting a little clear water between himself and Norman Lamont's strident anti-European stance, and by insisting that the debate over the Maastricht treaty had now 'moved on'.

But the effusion from his heavily Thatcherite audience signalled that his reputation as darling of the Tory right, and potential future leader, had emerged intact.

He emphasised that the Tories could offer a 'united agenda between ourselves' for the 1996 conference. Rejecting a call for Britain to tear up its Maastricht obligations and say no to a single European currency now, he said: 'I think we have arrived at a position with which we can all be happy . . . There is no concrete proposal, the time is not appropriate, and I would ask you all to live with that position.'

Of the dismissed former Chancellor's suggestion that withdrawal from Europe was no longer 'unthinkable', Mr Portillo said he was 'frankly surprised' that Mr Lamont should say he could no longer see any economic advantage in membership of the European Union.

Being part of a large free trade area in a world increasingly seeing the emergence of economic blocks had 'important advantages' for Britain.

On domestic policy, Mr Portillo steered clear of a detailed disquisition on Tory right-wing thinking, where he has come to grief in the past, but launched a heavy attack on Tony Blair and the Labour Party.

Spotlighting Mr Blair's core themes of a dynamic economy and the role of 'community', he said: 'No economy can be dynamic, no community stable, without a body of citizens who feel they have control over their lives and destinies, who willingly take responsibility for their own behaviour and the welfare of those closest to them.

'The Labour answer is quite different. Labour does not understand the individual. Its way is invariably corporatist and collectivist. When Labour politicians speak of community, they mean local government.'

Labour, he said, 'will try to exploit the sense of national renewal that accompanies economic recovery and it will try to steal the fruits of Conservative policy - we must not allow that to happen'.

At another fringe meeting, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, was seeking to reconcile market forces and communities.

'I believe that strong communities and free markets naturally and powerfully reinforce each other,' he said.

Few now mourned the passing of the kind of traditions that prevented council tenants buying their homes and factory workers buying shares, or forced union members out on strike.

'Free enterprise in this country operates within a framework of law which covers everything from health and safety to the protection of the environment,' he said.