"Single mums not vermin" shock

Observations on the Tory conference

It was a Tory party official who said it: "We've got to get this stuff past all these bloody people." He was talking to me after a debate on "helping the vulnerable in society". The delegates in Bournemouth were still muttering about Kate Green, the head of the National Council for One Parent Families, telling them that, actually, single mothers weren't all vermin. Still, it was progress of a sort. As she reminded the audience, she was as surprised to be there as they were surprised to see her invited.

The Conservatives, in broad policy terms, are settling on territory that Labour does not occupy. It has potential appeal - attracting the economic liberal, social liberal and anti-statist younger voter, with the emphasis on greater choice in provision of public services.

But the process is the problem. A small reformist cell at party headquarters is trying to graft a new politics on to a grass-roots that is either sceptical or hostile. The similarities to the Blair project circa the mid-Nineties are striking. On most, but not all, points of comparison, the Tories' task is harder.

Conviction: Blair believed in modernising his party; Iain Duncan Smith used not to, and is being convinced that he now ought to. Until he genuinely converts to the cause of social tolerance, and restrains himself and his aides from harking back to Thatcherism, he won't make headway.

Control: Blair used ultra-control to silence his critics and impose discipline. Duncan Smith is trying to - begging the shadow cabinet and party grandees to stop squabbling - but the Tories remain virtually ungovernable. Duncan Smith's position as leader remains vulnerable. First step would be to add Lord Tebbit's name on to the growing list of figures discouraged from attending conference.

Cleverness: Blair's inner circle, the Mandelsons, Campbells, Goulds and Browns, provided tactical prowess for the Leninist coup inside Labour. Duncan Smith does not have a similar pool of talent to draw on.

But it's not all gloom. In among the wrinklies, the bigots and the blue rinses, there is a small group of young, bright and moderately fashionable candidates coming through. The only way the Tories will get them selected is to impose them on reluctant constituencies, who so far have chosen the portly, well-spoken man in the pin-stripe. As Blair taught them and as William Hague learnt to his cost, there is no democratic way of reforming a party.

Still, the prospects may not be as terrible as many senior Tories were telling themselves in the conference bars. The latest polls show the gap with Labour is as low as 5 per cent, and this before the economic downturn really takes hold.

What the Tories need now is an end to self-flagellation and a consistent march towards looking and sounding more modern. As one senior Central Office strategist put it to me: "Last time we tried it and ran scared. This time we have to be more vigilant, because the traditionalist bastards won't give up." The nastiness still exists; it's just directed at new targets.

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