Steve Richards: Don't be fooled by nice words and a new logo: the Tories have not really changed

Europe troubles Cameron as the miners' strike afflicted Kinnock when he sought to remake his party
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The Independent Online

The Conservatives are to change their logo. In doing so they will look even newer than they appear to be already.

Where once they were nasty, now they try to be nice. The Conservative chairman, Francis Maude, defined the task candidly at last year's party conference. Mr Maude stated that any policy associated with the Conservative Party became unpopular. Since acquiring the leadership, David Cameron has sought with energetic charm to rebrand his party, so it does not infect all that it touches. Perhaps the new logo will be a cuddly teddy bear.

Yet what is behind the rebranding of the party? There are two specific policies that Mr Cameron has announced in what has been largely a policy-free leadership. One relates to Europe, the other is an internal reform. The policies and the reaction to them give a much clearer idea about the state of the Conservatives and the degree to which the party has changed than all the vacuous proclamations about modernisation.

During the leadership contest, Mr Cameron made one precise pledge. He announced that he would instruct his MEPs to leave the European People's Party, the centre-right alliance in the European parliament. Some interpreted this at the time as a crude bid for Eurosceptic votes. If that were the case, it worked. The MP Bill Cash, for example, has stated that he voted for Mr Cameron on the basis of this pledge alone.

I suspect, though, that Mr Cameron more or less believed what he said. Although he is a young leader he does not come from nowhere. He has a past, working closely with Eurosceptic ministers such as Norman Lamont and Michael Howard. Mr Cameron is a genuine Eurosceptic too, but bearing in mind Mr Maude's warning, he wants to be nice about it.

Yet some of the most active Conservatives behind the campaign to leave the EPP are less bothered about being nice. They are ardent supporters of withdrawal from the EU. Ringleaders include the MEP Daniel Hannan, who has called for Britain to quit the EU and Nato. Another MEP who leads the charge is Roger Helmer, a leader of the "Better Off Out" campaign. Mr Helmer lost the Tory whip in 2004, but there is now a vigorous campaign to "Reinstate Roger" led by John Redwood and others. They argue that in his hostility to the EU, Mr Helmer is being a good Conservative.

In addition, the ubiquitous Mr Cash is boasting that 130 Tory MPs back his call to give the UK parliament the right to unilaterally scrap any EU laws it does not like. His demand takes the form of an amendment to a government Bill going through parliament at the moment. Such a move would be incompatible with membership of the EU. It is a means to bring about Britain's withdrawal by stealth and is supported by half the parliamentary Conservative party.

The policy area that tore apart the Conservatives in government, and obsessed them in opposition, has not gone away. Europe returns to torment another Conservative leader, illustrating how difficult it is for a party to break with its immediate past.

Europe troubles Mr Cameron now as the miners' strike afflicted Neil Kinnock when he sought to change his party during the first phase of his leadership in the 1980s. Mr Kinnock wanted to move his party on from the images of the winter of discontent and militant trade unionism. Instead he was in the contorted position of almost, but not quite, supporting Arthur Scargill. Now Mr Cameron seeks to be nice while almost, but not quite, supporting the wilder Eurosceptics in his party.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives harden their broader foreign policy. The shadow defence spokesman, Liam Fox, spends spare moments rushing to Washington to deepen his rapport with hardline Republicans. He was particularly critical of Jack Straw when the former Foreign Secretary ruled out the use of force against Iran. The Shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, takes a similar line. Still supporters of the war against Iraq, fervently Atlanticist and Euro-sceptic, the Conservatives' foreign policy has not changed since the election.

Apart from Europe, Mr Cameron's other move of substance has been the attempt to ensure a more varied range of parliamentary candidates. With good cause he has promoted an A list. At its first test in the high-profile Bromley by-election, the local party members gave the A list contenders the thumbs down. Instead they selected a middle-class male, white candidate to lead their charge. Similarly, in his early phase, Mr Kinnock's reforming initiatives were rejected often by a Labour Party membership that had not come to terms in different ways with a changing Britain. On several fronts, Mr Cameron sounds like Tony Blair, but he faces challenges closer to those that confronted Neil Kinnock in the 1980s.

Not that Mr Cameron has called on his party to change very much so far. His speeches since becoming leader are collected together on the Conservative Party website. Reading them in one go makes it easier to grasp the strategic thinking. He states often that there is such a thing as society, but it is different from the state, a message that challenges neatly Mrs Thatcher's observation that there is no such thing as a society, while retaining conveniently her populist belief in a smaller state.

He reiterates that the Conservatives will spend the fruits of growth to improve public services and cut taxes, the same premise on which the party has contested the past three elections. As part of his attachment to a smaller state, he opposes what the Conservatives regard as excessive regulation. Yet his speeches include proclamations about the quality of life, the irresponsible behaviour of some businesses and the virtues of the public sector. He is accomplishing Mr Maude's task of sounding nice. In policy terms, he could have presented most proposals in the last Conservative manifesto deploying the same melodious tones.

None of this should surprise anyone. Indeed, the Conservatives would have cause for real worry if they had changed profoundly within a year of the last election. Such a change would be weak and superficial. It takes much longer to transform a party. Mr Kinnock wrote a letter to a newspaper yesterday reminding it that he changed his party's logo in 1986, from the red flag to the red rose. He noted ruefully it took another 11 years for the flower to fully bloom.

The former Labour leader faced a more epic task and acted in the context of a hostile media. Mr Cameron woos a willing media and has the advantage of facing a government at an awkward point in a third term. Perhaps being nice will do the trick in a modern Britain that is indifferent or hostile to democratic politics. But do not get fooled by the idea that a party can change in a year. The Conservatives are still the same party that lost the past three elections.