The Vice-Chairman of the Tories Describes His Party as "Nasty, Exclusive, Angry, Backward-Looking"

By Ashley, Jackie | New Statesman (1996), June 25, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Vice-Chairman of the Tories Describes His Party as "Nasty, Exclusive, Angry, Backward-Looking"


Ashley, Jackie, New Statesman (1996)


Margaret Thatcher? Just say no: the Tories need to break with her. Norman Tebbit? Sorry, Norm, you have to be dropped as well. The trouble is, your language is just plain nasty. William Hague? Well, what was going on there? Used to be a decent guy, but somewhere he flipped. Iain Duncan Smith? All that family stuff- who on earth advised him to do that?

A lot of nodding, winking and talking in code has been expended in the past week, as people try to explain what the Michael Portillo team really think about the post-Thatcherite Conservative Party and who is responsible for its defeat. Now we can throw away the code book. Steven Norris - the man reportedly lined up by Portillo to oversee "modernisation" of the party, an ex-transport minister, and last year's Tory candidate for London mayor-lays it out plain. Norris told me he thought there was now no choice left for the Tories. Hague had "morphed into an entirely different political animal" from the "young, active, constructive, tolerant, relaxed, forward-looking progressive Conservative" of his first year as leader. The new, right-wing, illiberal Hague had lost. Now, he says, it is time for the liberal alternative. And it won't be easy. Norris predicts something close to a convulsion, or civil war, in the defeated Conservative Party: "It will be tough going down this new road. Blood will be spilt. Old frien dships will be lost. There will be resignations and there will be tears, and Michael Portillo will come under enormous personal pressure - and I pray that he thought about that before he stood. But at the end of it, there is a light that is at the moment no larger than a lamp, that is actually the salvation of the modern Tory party. There is no alternative."

The echo of Thatcher's famous phrase is deliberate, and this is a man who knows what he's talking about. Norris beat both the Labour and the Liberal Democrat candidates in the election for the London mayor, coming a creditable second to Ken Livingstone. He fought on a manifesto for anew, inclusive Toryism, a few years ahead of the current Portillo model; and he fully intends to stand again. He won the endorsement of the Mirror -- the first time it had supported a Conservative candidate for 200 years -- as well as the Sun, the Times and most of the liberal press. He has spent this election campaign, as vice-chairman of the Conservative Party, dealing with the fallout from the racist mutterings of certain Tories. He insists the party has to change and change radically.

He is backing Michael Portillo as a clear break with Margaret Thatcher and her legacy: "I fear those links [with Thatcher] do have to be forgone by a party looking forward." In a polite way, he makes clear his view that Thatcher puts people off: "If you say, 'Do you think there are a huge number of people out there for whom Mrs Thatcher resonates in a different way than she does with party members?', then the answer is yes."

It's not just Thatcher, however. "The party has to put people like Norman Tebbit behind it. That's not to denigrate Norman's contribution... but I just think his view of the world is one which no longer assists the Conservative Party." It comes down, he believes, to a perception that the Tory party is just plain nasty. "I don't think that Norman is a nasty person, but his words frequently appear to give that impression; and, quite simply, the Tories cannot continue as the nasty, exclusive, rather angry, backward-looking party." Norris can't resist the afterthought: "It may make an excellent column in the Mail on Sunday, but I'm not sure that is necessarily the acid test any more for the Conservative Party."

Lord Tebbit's favoured candidate, the "normal" chap, is lain Duncan Smith, the family man. "To me that's an irrelevant proposition," says Norris. "This is not what you elect people for, and I'm actually rather disappointed that Iain's early utterances have all tended to concentrate on how important he thinks family is -- I wonder who on earth could have advised him on that. …

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