Central Office shake-up long overdue

MICHAEL Howard has acted swiftly to repair the Conservative Party's credibility after six lost years of inertia. As Political Editor Graham Dines reports, reform of Central Office is at heart of major changes at the top.

MICHAEL Howard has acted swiftly to repair the Conservative Party's credibility after six lost years of inertia. As Political Editor Graham Dines reports, reform of Central Office is at heart of major changes at the top.

MICHAEL Howard is a man in a hurry. He has to be – the next election may be only 18 months away and the Tories are still trailing in the opinion polls.

It looks an impossible job and the Tories – united for the first time since the 1992 General Election campaign – honestly think they are in with a shout.

Mr Howard was part of John Major's government, so despised by the electorate. He has already admitted that his own reputation was damaged by the policies he implemented. He has promised to change.

His radical overhaul of his Shadow Cabinet was to be anticipated, although the savage pruning from 24 to 12 members is a surprise.

But the way he has set about Conservative Central Office will be the one action so far that will have pleased the 300,000 Tory Party members nationwide.

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It's why the announcement of Theresa May's replacement as the party's chairman was made 24 hours ahead of the rest of the Shadow Cabinet appointments. He had to get across the message to the Tory faithful that Central Office was to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century – and he was rewarded with front page front page headlines in the newspapers read by Tories and the lead item on the BBC's flagship radio programme Today.

Central Office is in Smith Square, sheltered by St John's Church, one of London's finest concert venues. Across the way is Transport House – Labour's long time headquarters and now the home of the Local Government Association – while the Department of the Environment, Food and Regional Affairs guards the exit to the Thames.

CCO looks from the outside jaded and uninspiring. Although some modernisation has taken place inside, it is still a prime example of a pre-World War II office complex.

Short of moving, there is little the party can do with its headquarters building. But it can change personalities and attitudes.

Splitting the role of party chairman between Dr Liam Fox and Lord Saatchi is a major shift in emphasis for Mr Howard. Since the post was created in 1911, the 33 former incumbents have held a significantly more powerful positions in the party than their opposite numbers in the Labour, Liberal or Liberal Democrat parties.

The party chairman is responsible for Conservative Central Office and in the past has helped ensure the Tories had the most efficient party machine in Britain.

The chairman occupies a seat in the Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet and is responsible for masterminding election campaigns, and maintaining relations with Conservative associations and party workers in the country.

Yet, Central Office has – in the words of Dr Fox – become "rusty." He should also have added that it has reinforced the image that the Tory hierarchy has become detached from the membership at large.

Conservative Central Office is but a shadow of its former glory, partly of course because the Tories have been humiliated at two General Elections.

When William Hague was leader between 1997 and 2001, it produced virtually no new thinking. Its once rightly feared ability of producing radical and innovative thinking sunk in a sea of inertia, defeating the Party chairman of that time Michael Ancram.

In Iain Duncan Smith's brief tenure of the Tory Party, he had two chairmen. Neither could be described as an outstanding success. Under David Davis initially and then Theresa May, Central Office has seemed directionless, failing to get to grasps with 21st century campaigning.

It has become embroiled in the new politics that has made London all-powerful to the detriment of the tens of thousands of paid-up Tory loyalists. The values of rank-and-file members are not to be found in Belgravia, Pimlico and Holland Park, but in Perth, Bury St Edmunds, and Hove.

In recent years, Conservative Central Office has at times resembled a nest of vipers, with supporters and opponents of the party leader briefing constantly to the detriment of the party at large.

Conservatives in the provinces cast their minds back longingly to 1987 when then Chairman Norman Tebbit was given much of the credit for the scale of Margaret Thatcher's 1987 election landslide. Five years' later, Chris Patten engineered John Major victory in 1992, sacrificing his own seat in the process.

In the split role of the two chairmen, Dr Liam Fox will deal with the media operation, and reinvigorate the party's policy unit and campaigning wing. His co-chairman, Lord Saatchi will take charge of internal issues within Conservative Central Office.

Working at Tory headquarters offers little, if any, job security. Most people are on contracts, which by London standards are poorly paid; they use the experience and influence gained to move on to better and highly rewarding jobs.

There's likely to be a major weeding out of personalities – Howard has already appointed a new chief executive. It will be music to the ears of Tory constituency and regional chairmen – they still blame the whispering campaign against Mr Duncan Smith on the disloyalty of Central Office insiders.

The way IDS was sacked made it essential for to act swiftly to reassure deeply unhappy Tory members. His overhaul of Central Office has ensured that – overtaking Labour will be much more difficult.

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