The New Statesman Interview - Steven Norris

The vice-chairman of the Tories describes his party as "nasty, exclusive, angry, backward-looking".

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 friendships 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 a new, 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 Iain 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." (Norris is the bete noire of some Tory activists for having had a series of mistresses while he was in government.) Well, he's prepared to cast off Thatcher and Tebbit, but surely not the Mail group of newspapers, too? It seems he is. Norris described the editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, as a "fuckwit" at a private conference a couple of years ago, and wasn't surprised to find both the Mail and the Telegraph at his throat during the mayoral election. With the Daily Telegraph, it was less personal invective thrown at the editor than Norris's support for abolishing Section 28, which prohibits the "promotion" of homosexuality in schools.

He recalls a conversation with Charles Moore, the editor of the Telegraph, in which Moore expressed strong distaste for the used condoms scattered around Hampstead Heath, a well-known trysting place for gay men. Norris replied that if it was unsightly litter that was worrying Moore, well then he agreed, but he didn't think it was a huge political issue. As to sex outdoors, he agreed it offended people, but didn't think the sexuality of the participants made a huge amount of difference. All this enraged the Telegraph, but reflects an approach that Norris feels will have to be adopted by the Tory party if it is ever to have a hope of returning to power.

So just what kind of Tory party is Steven Norris envisaging? And what does he hope Portillo will bring? "The Tory party has this one opportunity to become a much more adult, sensible, serious but relaxed, tolerant and generous party." He uses an example from his candidacy for the London mayor, when Livingstone remarked, at one of the many debates between the candidates, that the nice thing about the election was that there wasn't a candidate you had to hate.

"We've got to have a party," says Norris, "that nobody feels the need to hate any more." It follows, then, that all those old Tory hate figures must be detached, ditched, disowned. Baroness Young, who led the fight to preserve Section 28, is another of them, according to Norris: "I say these words as graciously and politely as I can because I am very fond of Janet Young, but she may be one of the people who may need to be less prominent in the Conservative Party thinking as we move forward."

I ask where that leaves Ann Widdecombe, who seems to share Young's traditional moral code. Norris insists he could never have supported her for the leadership, because he'd heard her say that "homosexuality, adultery and living together" were all wrong. He is prepared to admit that the last two "are capable of being defined as wrong", though says he personally demurs, having been guilty of both, but goes on: "To describe homosexuality as wrong is everything that I'm arguing the Conservative Party cannot afford to be."

He does not consider the idea of a man with a gay past being elected the leader of the Tory party surprising, any more than he thinks the electorate of London would have problems with a serial adulterer as mayor. Whatever some Conservatives may think, "the rest of the world doesn't think either proposition is particularly remarkable or noteworthy".

This brings us to the question of Norris's future. Since standing down from the Commons in 1997, he has made a successful career for himself as a businessman and a lobbyist, and describes himself as "indecently happy". Not for him the bleak prospect of years on the opposition back benches. Yet the lure of the London mayoralty proved too much for him in the spring of 2000, and may do so again next time round. I ask if he'll stand again. "If the decision has to be made now, the answer is a resounding yes . . . I fidget, my fingers twitch, because I can see so many things being left undone that ought to have been done."

Although he's a fan of Ken Livingstone on a personal level - "I like him enormously" - he thinks Livingstone's first year as mayor has been "a huge disappointment". It has been, he believes, a great missed opportunity. "I have to ask myself what we are going to achieve in Ken's first term, and the answer is nothing."

Declaring an interest as a director of one of the companies bidding for the public-private partnership in the London Underground, he slates Livingstone for playing politics rather than sorting out London's chronic transport problem. "It's a question of knowing what's practical and negotiating hard, not letting London suffer for the sake of a bit of political high ground," he says. Even if the government were to give in tomorrow on the PPP, he insists it will be "another two years before we see a realistic plan for investment".

He seems horrified: "I would never have believed that an incoming Labour government would have spent less than the Tories on the Underground." Clearly, he still thinks he can win the mayor's job next time round.

A lot of what Nor- ris says in his NS interview will send quivers of anxiety down the well-tailored suits of the Portillo team. It is not emollient, or tactful, or cautious. He sounds, perhaps, like the Provisional wing of the Portill-ista movement caught in an un-guarded moment. But Norris matters because he has fought out these issues on the doorsteps of London, where the Tories have to return from the dead if they are ever to have any chance of forming another national government. He knows. His anger and his urgency are the optimism of a liberal Conservative who has not yet given up on the party.

An original economic Thatcherite, one of the "car salesmen" who stormed the party in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he has been a larger-than-life figure in its story ever since. Now, in his earthy, plain-speaking outspokenness, he hardly sounds like a Tory at all. And that is the point.

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