DAVID WILLETTS is driving through his constituency in his battered, blue Volvo. "This is the Tampax factory," he says. "We used to be Britain's biggest supplier of Tampax. If you looked closely at a Tampax packet it said `Made in Havant'. Now it says `Made in Romania'."
The collapse of the feminine-hygiene industry in Havant is of considerable concern to Mr Willetts, whose urban sprawl of a constituency has a disquieting level of unemployment. Luckily, for the people of Havant, their MP is an employment expert, brimming with ideas on how to find them jobs. Indeed, he is so dedicated to improving their prospects he donated his shirts to an employment centre so youngsters from the local council estate could look presentable when they went to interviews.
`People did not have smart clothes for interviews so I contributed these shirts," he says. "They were normal shirts. I don't wear Jermyn Street. The problem was my bloody neck has thickened."
At the Wheatsheaf Trust job centre on the Leigh Park estate, where, it seems, Mr Willetts' smart Tory shirts have been quietly disposed of, they are pleased to see their local MP. The shadow Work and Pensions Secretary is immediately accosted by several job- seekers, one of whom saw him on television at 2.30am commenting on the Hartlepool by-election.
Mr Willetts had the unenviable task of explaining why the Conservatives came fourth behind UKIP and the Liberal Democrats. "It was a blow," he says. "I wouldn't disguise it. "The fact that the Lib Dems almost took Hartlepool is very frustrating. It is disappointing and the frustration is that we have not yet convinced people. We have to do more to show that we have a practical set of politics that will make Britain a better place."
Mr Willetts believes this week's conference must be used to show the Conservatives have answers "for making mainstream British life better". But he suggests the task will be an uphill struggle.
"We have not succeeded in converting this deep disillusionment with Labour into the active support for us I would like to see," he says. "We still need to do more just to show we are comfortable with British society as it is, and tackling the problems in Britain today."
As one of the few caring Conservatives left in Michael Howard's senior team, Mr Willetts thinks the party must do more to demonstrate it is "rooted in everyday Britain". He adds: "There are still people who think Tories are people in three-piece suits being served dry sherries by their butlers. You would be amazed the number of people who think that is what we are like."
Mr Willetts, who slows his car down to point out a building destroyed by arsonists, says for the Tories to have any hope of regaining power it must win urban constituencies much like his own. "One of the problems is that we have been driven back to our rural heartland. It is very important that we make progress in urban Britain."
Mr Howard, in his call to arms before becoming party leader, said Conservatives must be "broad in appeal and generous in outlook" and "capable of representing all Britain and all Britons". Mr Willetts, one of the original Tory "mods" who backed Michael Portillo against Iain Duncan Smith, warns Mr Howard not to stray from the laudable aspirations he set out in the Saatchi Gallery last year.
"It was a very powerful speech. It was a great speech. That is still the lodestar that has to guide us," he says pointedly.
But it appears Mr Willetts' pleas to stay on course could be ignored. In the recent reshuffle, he was moved from his role overseeing the party's election manifesto. He was not the only moderniser to be shifted aside. Damian Green and John Bercow left the Shadow Cabinet with Julie Kirkbride, one of the few women on the front bench.
"I am sorry to see Damian leave the front bench," Mr Willetts says, almost wistfully. …