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29 January 2001

Tories agree: no terror tactics

Come the election, you won't find Widdecombe in London. Simon Hefferexplains why

By Simon Heffer

For a party used to splashing out to the point of extravagance when it comes to elections, the Tories have long feared that the next campaign would have to be like none they have ever fought. The cupboard was not quite bare – thanks to Lord Ashcroft – but there seemed no hope of raising anything approaching the £22m that funded the monumentally unsuccessful 1997 campaign.

Now Stuart Wheeler has changed all that, with £5m promised and the possi- bility of up to another £5m to come. It is widely reported that there are no strings attached to his donation, but that is not strictly true. He has made it clear to the Tory leadership that he expects his benefaction to be spent on what he calls “real campaigning”.

What he apparently means by this is concentrating the money on the constituencies, especially the party’s target seats. Electoral law still sets pretty stringent limits on expenses but, in many of those seats, the party is so moribund that the funds it needs even to spend up to those limits have not been raised. There are vital parts of the infrastructure that need to be renewed – some local campaign HQs have obsolete photocopiers, phones, computers and fax machines. Wheeler wants his cash spent on things of that sort, rather than on extravagant poster campaigns. He is also said to be keen on direct mailshots, an expensive but efficient way of getting the message across that might otherwise have been beyond the Tories.

The announcement of the great donation coincided with details of how the Tory campaign will be conducted. Like all other decisions made by the party in recent months, it prompted dissent and backbiting rather than a roar of unity. The two sides of the argument – which can be broadly defined as those who like or dislike Michael Portillo and Francis Maude – each had its own spin to put on the question. Those who worship the shadow chancellor and shadow foreign secretary argue that their central role in the daily London press conferences will make them the most important people in the Tory campaign – other, perhaps, than William Hague himself. Meanwhile, Ann Widdecombe is being sent to the farthest reaches of the kingdom because of her ability to terrorise voters; and another possible future leadership contender, Iain Duncan Smith, will be kept in the provinces, too, to ensure he doesn’t steal any of the spotlight.

The anti-Portillistas have a different view. They argue that Hague has been brilliant in anchoring Portillo and his friends to the campaign, because they will be the most closely identified with it if it goes wrong. It will be their talking heads, and not his, who defend policy on the news bulletins all day. Hague, with his wife and Sebastian Coe, will be storming the country, meeting real people, and going into charisma overdrive. If his party sinks, Portillo and Maude sink with it.

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Widdecombe may repel the floating voter, but she is adored by the party’s core vote, which has to be mobilised if the party is to improve significantly on its horrific performance in 1997; and it is her job to get it out. As for Duncan Smith, he is the great beneficiary of this campaign. Hague, initially wary of a man who made his mark as a Maastricht rebel and as a lieutenant of John Redwood’s, has now come to regard him as the most impressive member of the shadow cabinet. Duncan Smith’s assault on the principle of the European rapid reaction force earned the party some exceedingly rare good headlines. His campaigning job represents a substantial promotion for him. It seems he will spend much of his war down in the west country to try to neutralise the strong UK Independence Party vote in those parts. As a fervent Eurosceptic himself, Duncan Smith is the man to do it.

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A rebuttal unit comprising the policy chief, Andrew Lansley – whose efforts with the forthcoming manifesto have led to his being branded a “control freak” by some colleagues – and the party chairman, Michael Ancram, completes the line-up. Strangely, the man thought to be so effective in attacking the enemy that he was given a special job in charge of parliamentary campaigns – John Redwood – has been accorded no special role in the election. He will sit out the three weeks in his entirely safe seat of Wokingham. Hague still believes the selective evidence of his focus groups that tells him Redwood upsets the voters.

There looks likely to be one more problem. Hague is inordinately proud of his European policy – the one that says the Tories rule out the single currency for the duration of the next parliament – but many of his anti-euro backbenchers think it cowardly in its lack of principle. The talk is already of innumerable election addresses in which candidates will proclaim their opposition to the very idea of entry, now and for ever more. That old division will be thrown up at them again and again. It might well lack the resonance that such a split had in 1997, though. For a start, the euro has been such a flop that no one (especially not, it seems, the Chancellor of the Exchequer) really cares any more. And more importantly, if the Tories can’t get their act together on other, far more important themes, such as taxation and the funding of the public services, then even £100m of Wheeler’s money wouldn’t make the blindest bit of difference.

Simon Heffer, a columnist on the Daily Mail, is our conservative Party correspondent