'It's time for...' change in Tory camp

Next week's Conservative Party Conference will put out a radically different message from what went before, says former Tory media head Amanda Platell

When Iain Duncan Smith steps centre stage at the Tory Conference next week, it will be the culmination of a year-long secret project - the Philadelphia Story. Almost since he was elected leader in September 2001, his advisers have been making clandestine trips to Washington to discover how President George W Bush's team transformed America's most right-wing presidential candidate into a compassionate conservative and make him electable.

The conference is clearly vital to Conservative attempts to do the same for IDS and the party is determined that Edwina Currie's revelation last week of her affair with John Major will not make this any more difficult.

While a tough approach will be taken with journalists' questions on the subject, officials say it will be miracle if it doesn't overshadow their carefully laid plans.

These plans have included the hiring of pollster and political consultant John McLaughlin, the man credited with the Bush makeover, as a key adviser to IDS. McLaughlin turned the hanging Texan into a man who, while still believing in the death penalty, believed in eradicating the life sentence of poverty meted out to the US's poorest kids.

When IDS talks about the vulnerable, it is pure McLaughlin. He is the man who identified the most important group of swing voters - the Soccer Mums - without whom electoral victory was impossible. These women are identified by the fact they spend a lot of time driving their kids to football matches. They are small 'c' conservatives but do not warm to hard right-wing politicians, however much they may agree with low taxes, tough crime laws and free market economics. Good and fair public services are high on their political shopping list.

'Duncan Smith will be targeting his own Soccer Mums,' one adviser says.

'They see themselves as caring about people other than their immediate families and communities. It's important their politicians feel the same.'

Bush is arguably the most right-wing President the US has ever elected.

Prior to the 2000 convention, he was one of the most hard Right presidential candidates the country had ever seen and was, as such, unelectable.

Similar perceptions of extremism and harshness are facing the Tories.

Central Office may be a long way from the glamour of Washington - even considering this week's Clintonesque revelation - but it has made a start.

'The 2000 Republican convention was the turning point which transformed Bush's hard Right, extreme image into a more centrist image,' the adviser says. 'He targeted education in the run-up to the election and at that conference focused on public services. There were a lot of young people and women and black people in the audiences. It was a more inclusive look.

'On education, the Republicans had been trailing 30 to 40 points behind the Democrats. By the time of the election, that gap was five. In Texas, he made inner cities and education his top priority. And when he became President he appointed Colin Powel and Condoleeza Rice, two high-profile blacks, to his inner cabinet,' the adviser adds.

Having planned several of these conferences myself and knowing how difficult it is to stimulate media interest in any story that is not a U-turn, a split or a crisis, I know it is time for a change in how they are conducted.

All party conferences have become political dinosaurs, bearing little relation to anything people experience in their own lives. That is set to change at Bournemouth.

Organisers run the risk of incurring the wrath of the journalist, who will have their 'pre-pre-dinner drinks drinks, pre-dinner-drinks, dinner' pattern disrupted by the new schedule which holds the main speeches in the prime 6 to 7pm TV time slot.

As one aide puts it: 'We're getting rid of all the old stiffs.' No more Politburo-style rows of faceless, grey officials lined up for their moment of glory, no 'Name the Members of the Shadow Cabinet' games, no Heath, no Thatcher, no Major and only a brief appearance from William Hague.

'The 2000 convention and the McLaughlin strategy will inform this year's Tory Conference,' the adviser says. 'The stage will be cleaner and more modern, with fewer politicians sitting on the platform and stages that reach out into the audience. There will be no fixed backdrop - it will instead be used as a giant moving poster site.'

The theme is 'It's time for...' - but given the flexibility of the presentational concept, even that can change at the last minute. The themes will vary with the speaker and the persistent images will be those of the public services - nurses, patients, doctors, hospitals, teachers, pupils, classrooms.

'The speeches will run on into the evening and the whole exercise will be aimed at primetime news. Our aim is to have (BBC political editor) Andrew Marr on the BBC Six O'Clock bulletin standing in front of a fresh backdrop saying to camera: "The Tories have just announced...".' the adviser adds.

Of course, these are the main bulletins the Soccer Mums watch.

This will be a made-for-TV conference. Unlike the Republican convention, there will be no cheerleaders, no balloons, and no star spangled banner.

This will be a very British version of the Philadelphia Story.

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