Tories Plot a Comeback

Britain's Conservatives met last week, their leader stressing need for more inclusive party.

Britain's Conservatives have begun rewriting their political agenda, stressing the need for social compassion and a more tolerant approach to personal morality.

But grass-roots pressure is forcing their new leader, William Hague, to oppose further moves toward European integration.

Mr. Hague has taken over leadership of a party that badly needs to strike out in a new direction, analysts say. But many party members are reluctant to give up ideas pursued in the 1980s by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

"Mr. Hague may hope and plan for a return to office in five years," says political commentator Peter Riddell. "But much of his party is still behaving as if it will be 10 years." Britain must hold general elections at no more than five-year intervals.

Bruised by last May's landslide electoral defeat, the Conservative Party held its annual conference last week with the ruling Labour Party still in a buoyant mood and Prime Minister Tony Blair enjoying a record-breaking 93 percent approval rating. Hague, who took party leadership from former Prime Minister John Major in June, told party members that it was "time for us to acknowledge our mistakes."

"We must transform the world's oldest and most successful political party into a modern fighting force equipped for the battles of the 21st century," he said in a speech.

Hague emphasized the need to preserve "the traditional Tory values of freedom and enterprise, education and self-reliance."

But he surprised some audience members by calling for conservatism "with compassion at its core" and insisting that he wanted to see "blacks and Asians sitting on the Conservative benches in the House of Commons." Hague appeared to be distancing himself from his party's previous attitudes on ethnic issues.

A day earlier, Lord Tebbit, a former party chairman and leading Thatcherite, had attacked "multiculturalism" and warned that "too much deference to ethnic minorities" could turn Britain into "another Bosnia."

Hague's personal conduct draws fire

The fresh-faced Hague also attracted criticism for his approach to personal ethics and morality. He told the conference that he favored an "inclusive" approach to homosexuals and other minorities, and was tolerant toward unmarried couples living together, although he still believed in "family values."

Hague, the youngest Tory leader since William Pitt took the post in 1783, plans to marry in December. Despite criticism openly voiced ahead of the conference by Baroness Thatcher, Hague shared a bedroom with his fiance and showed reporters around it.

Lord Rees-Mogg, a former editor of the London Times, warned Hague that such attitudes were questionable and possibly dangerous for a man aspiring to be prime minister.

"The fruits of the permissive revolution have been divorces, single parents, abortions, and broken lives," Rees-Mogg wrote in the Sunday Times.

On the issue of European economic integration and adoption of a single European currency, Hague appeared to give ground to rank-and-file members who oppose these steps. But he also found himself under pressure from Euro-enthusiasts. At one point he ruled out Britain joining a single currency "for the next 10 years." A day later, after veiled criticism of his stance from Kenneth Clarke, the former chancellor of the exchequer, he altered the wording to "for the foreseeable future."

Mr. Clarke is a senior backbencher in the Commons and makes no secret of his view that Britain should join the single currency quickly. When Parliament returns at the end of this month, he is widely expected to keep up the pressure on Hague on the European issue.

The search for a strategy

In fact, Hague is having to deal with pressures coming at him from several directions.

One strain of opinion, personified by Alan Duncan, his closest political confidant, is urging him to put his faith in party reorganization, grant more power to the grass roots, and attract more young members. Hague told the conference that he wanted to more than double party membership to 1 million by 2000.

Another strain, flowing mainly from Conservative think tanks, wants him to concentrate on ideology and rewrite the Conservative creed to suit a post-Thatcherite Britain.

A third stream, popular in English rural areas, would like to see opposition to the European Union be the keystone of Tory policy.

A fourth strand of advice is counseling Hague to be pragmatic, underplay ideology, and wait for Mr. Blair to make mistakes.

At that point, says right-wing political analyst Boris Johnson, "The Tories will be able to persuade voters that it was folly to support Labour at the general election."

Some leading Conservatives agree. They point out that by adopting many policies pursued by Conservatives in the last two decades, Labour has given the Tories little option but to wait patiently until things go wrong for Blair.

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