Join us now, Blair urges Tory rebels

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 29 September 1999 23:02

TONY BLAIR appealed to left-wing Tories to defect to Labour yesterday as he stepped up his efforts to create a "one nation" party that dominates British politics.

Mr Blair's aides said last night that senior Labour politicians were "in constant dialogue" with moderate Tories about Europe and other issues. They hope to lure at least one Tory MP into Labour's ranks before the next general election, following in the footsteps of Alan Howarth and Peter Temple-Morris, who have already crossed the floor of the Commons.

Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine, who will join forces with Mr Blair to launch the pro-EU "Britain In Europe" campaign next month, will not quit the Conservative Party. But Brendan May, who worked on Mr Clarke's Tory leadership campaign in 1997, and David Hurford-Jones, a businessman and former soldier, have quit the Tories and decided to join Labour.

They told The Independent last night that New Labour was the only credible guardian of the "one nation" beliefs which made them Conservatives in the first place.

They said they were both "classic Tory targets" as professional people who believed in wealth creation and competition. They said Labour's values were "diametrically opposed to the complacent right-wing bigotry" of many Tory MPs.

Mr Blair made his appeal the day after telling the Labour conference in Bournemouth that the class war was over and pledging to sweep away "the forces of conservatism" that were holding Britain back.

Yesterday he said: "There must be many people in the Conservative Party today, sensible people, one-nation Conservatives who believe in sensible engagement in Europe, who believe in Britain being in Europe. I think a lot of them are uncomfortable in the present Conservative Party and I say to them there's a place for you in today's Labour Party."

Tory leaders will see Mr Blair's move as a blatant attempt to destabilise the Conservative Party as it prepares for its annual conference in Blackpool next week. He has repeatedly sought to portray prominent Tories as right- wing extremists, making it easier for Labour to occupy the political centre ground.

William Hague, the Tory leader, accused Mr Blair of "an extraordinary rewriting of history" in his conference speech. He said: "You have got to admire the nerve of it, but it is incredible hypocrisy to attack the forces of conservatism in that way."

Mr Blair angered Labour left-wingers by emphasising yesterday that his criticism of the "forces of conservatism" also included his Old Labour opponents. "If we want to make this country fit for the 21st century then we have to take on those forces of conservatism left or right," he said.

There were more signs that not all sections of Labour were enthusiastic about the Prime Minister's crusade.

Alan Simpson, MP for Nottingham South, rejected Mr Blair's claim that the class war was over, and said much of his conference speech had addressed problems caused by the class divide under the Tories. "It would be daft to pretend that a problem goes away just because you decide not to talk about it. It's like putting your bills in the top drawer," he said.

A group of schoolgirl jazz musicians from Talbot Heath School, Bournemouth, were jeered by Labour delegates at a conference fringe meeting when the audience belatedly realised they came from an independent school. At first, they cheered the girls at the meeting organised by the public service union Unison to highlight social exclusion.

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