Mr Portillo offers a vision of principle and tolerance to the Conservative Party

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The Independent Online

Who dares wins, as someone once said. True, a few jokes at the expense of the euro at the Tory party conference is not exactly the stuff of SAS legends. But Michael Portillo's speech yesterday was certainly daring in other important respects. Mr Portillo realises better than most how much work has to be done by the Conservative Party before it can truly describe itself as an inclusive body, one that welcomes people to it regardless of their race or their sexuality.

Who dares wins, as someone once said. True, a few jokes at the expense of the euro at the Tory party conference is not exactly the stuff of SAS legends. But Michael Portillo's speech yesterday was certainly daring in other important respects. Mr Portillo realises better than most how much work has to be done by the Conservative Party before it can truly describe itself as an inclusive body, one that welcomes people to it regardless of their race or their sexuality.

It is, as those who know it well can attest, a party that can almost be described as "institutionally homophobic". Anyone who witnessed the reception given at The Independent's fringe meeting to our columnist the former Tory MP Michael Brown, who is open about his homosexuality, will be in no doubt as to the ugly prejudices all too readily displayed by some Tory activists. Too few of them would agree with Mr Portillo's view: "The Conservative Party looks for things that mark people out as individual and exceptional. We are for people whatever their sexual orientation."

As Steve Norris so often says, and to depressingly little effect, until the Tories learn to accept minorities and actively encourage them to seek positions of responsibility in Tory politics as officials, councillors and MPs, then the Conservatives will become more and more anachronistic in a Britain that has taken a much more relaxed attitude toward sexuality and race. The Tories could also learn a lot from the US Republicans about promoting an image of inclusiveness. Mr Portillo deserves recognition for championing a liberal Tory vision. If his party fails to listen, then it will find itself an increasingly ghettoised minority.

None of that, though, prevented Mr Portillo from querying some shibboleths about the most outstanding institution of the "one nation" ideal: the NHS.

The shadow Chancellor rightly challenged our cosy assumption that the NHS really does provide the best health care in the world. Sometimes it does. Too often, though, it manifestly does not. That is not to criticise those who work in it, many with a dedication that few of us fully appreciate. Nor is it to abandon the principle of universal health care provided on the basis of need, not ability to pay. But we have to start thinking about the way forward.

Mr Portillo senses (uncharacteristically) that there is something to be learnt from Europe. Europeans, he correctly points out, spend more of their national income on health - it's just that some of the money happens to come from privately organised insurance schemes rather than from taxes.

Mr Portillo is on to something, but his particular approach cannot be the answer. Private health insurance invites the prospect of a two-tier NHS, with the tax-funded part being pushed toward lower spending and poorer standards, as people "opt out". Far better to promote insurance schemes to pay for certain non-core NHS functions.

The strategy would be to fund an improvement in core services from taxation, while paying for the expansion on other care via insurance, with a safety net. It might force a more rational and explicit ordering of priorities for the NHS.

Mr Portillo's speech was thoughtful but it was most notable because he offered his party a model of leadership that balanced tolerance and principle. We have seen too little of that recently.

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