BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 09.06.02

Film: PAUL WILENIUS asks whether the Conservative Party really means it when it says it wants to change.

PAUL WILENIUS: Looking back may not be the best thing for a political party wanting to move forward. The Conservative leader's in America this weekend picking up tips on sprucing up his own party's image to make it more inclusive, modern, electable. It needs it, as the party's popular support is at a standstill. Under Iain Duncan Smith the Conservatives are portraying their party as one that cares about hospitals, schools and the vulnerable and not just the Euro and immigration. There's little doubt the language has changed and it's more inclusive, but critics are asking is this just polishing up the old image or is it really something new? They want to see real change in action and policy, to match the rhetoric. The scale of the task involved was admitted by Dominic Cummings, a senior Tory strategist, last week. He said the party was even more unpopular than the Euro in Britain. In an effort to collect more electoral support the leadership is talking constantly about public services. Yet a leading Conservative think tank says it's also vital to avoid old Tory privatisation policies, to show its leader IDS really is new. NICHOLAS BOLES: The Party is absolutely right to be focusing on the public services, because that's what people in Britain are focusing on. The party must be very careful not to fall into an easy characterisation of privatisation as the only solution for the public services. WILENIUS; The Tories have also expunged their traditional tax cutting message. Now they say they favour funding public services first. But do they really mean it? Although modernisers in the party welcome the new approach from IDS and his Shadow Ministers, there are concerns that recent actions may have sent a contradictory message. BOLES: Michael Howard as Shadow Chancellor was absolutely right to say that the proper funding and reform of public services, was more important right now than cutting taxes. He was absolutely right to say that. It perhaps sent a conflicting signal when the party then decided to oppose, vote against, the tax rises in the budget, rather than for instance abstain. WILENIUS; In recent weeks the Tory Party has seemed to reject other opportunities to buff up its new image The leader took a hard line on asylum in a recent article in the Daily Mail. While in Parliament, the party opposed legislation to give unmarried couples the right to adopt, even though forty per cent of children in the UK are born to unmarried parents. The chance to show the party had changed was lost. BOLES; I think that in the debate about adoption and in the continuing debate about asylum, there have recently been some signals sent which conflict with the overall direction set by the leader and that was unfortunate, and it does need to be avoided in future. Iain Duncan Smith has clearly set a new direction and adopted some very new and striking themes for the Conservative Party. What is important is that, that is now followed through in detailed policy work and that the Party and the Shadow Cabinet do not get distracted by the opportunities of cheap shot politics. WILENIUS; Getting the Tories moving again after two crushing election defeats is a big task for any leader. Iain Duncan Smith has put them back on the road with a more inclusive approach. Now he has three years to show this is not just a makeover, and he can follow up with policies and action to put his party back in the political fast lane.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.