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Howard: Our country needs a rejuvenated Conservative Party

Address to the Conservative Party's National Convention

"I am very grateful for the opportunity to say a few words to you to explain why I think it is so important for the future of our Party - and yes for our country - that we change the rules for electing the Leader of the Party so as to give the final decision to our elected Members of Parliament.

I hope that my words may carry some weight because I have no vested interest whatever in the outcome of the forthcoming leadership contest. I want only what is best for the Party and best for the country.

Let us share a moment to reflect on our present predicament.

In a few weeks time we shall elect the fourth Leader of our Party in the twenty first century - a century that is less than six years old. All three of our next Leader's predecessors in this century will have left that position having failed to become Prime Minister.

By contrast in the whole of the last century only one Leader of the Conservative Party left that position without becoming Prime Minister.

That stark fact should make us think really hard.

It's not just a question of what's best for this Party - though it's a Party with a glorious history, a Party we all love and care deeply about.

It's a question of what is best for our country. It's no accident, no coincidence, that the Conservative Party has played such a distinguished part in our history, has so often formed the Government of this country.

It's because the historic values of our Party - the sense of nationhood, the matching of personal liberty with individual responsibility, the belief in free enterprise and the commitment to a sense of community - have for so long been the historic values of this country.

People say that the future of our democracy needs a rejuvenated Conservative Party to provide effective opposition. And there's much truth in that.

But I believe the future of our country needs a rejuvenated Conservative Party to provide not just effective Opposition but to restore honest, decent and responsible government to our country: the kind of government that really will make a difference to the condition of the people, to the lives of our fellow citizens.

That's why the decisions that we make over the next few weeks and the discussions you are going to have today are really important. That's why they really matter.

I've fought eight Parliamentary elections as a Conservative candidate.

No-one knows better that I do how much every Conservative Parliamentary candidate and every Conservative Member of Parliament owes to you, to the voluntary workers - the people who deliver our leaflets, who knock on doors for us, who run our ward committees and our Associations. You are the backbone of our Party and I and all my colleagues in Parliament are deeply in your debt.

Why do you do it?

I'll stick my neck out.

I doubt if you do it so that you can decide who should be the Leader of our Party. After all you and many others have done it for decades - long before the rules were changed after the 1997 election.

I think you do it because, like me, you want to see a Conservative Government. Because you think a Conservative Government would be good for Britain. Because you think a Conservative Government is what Britain needs.

And so the question that must be uppermost in our minds, the only question that we should think about, is how do we achieve that?

And I have to tell you that, in my judgement, one of the essential elements - not the only one, I don't say it's enough in itself - but one of the essential elements if we are to achieve that goal is a unified, disciplined Parliamentary Party.

It's often said that being Leader of the Opposition is the toughest job in politics. Anyone who's going to do this job in future needs to know from the outset that he or she commands the clear support of the MPs - that he or she can rely on a united, disciplined team - just as I was able to.

Now I think - again it's my judgement - that an essential element if we are to achieve that discipline is that the Parliamentary Party should have the decisive say in electing the Leader: If a majority of the Parliamentary Party has voted for the Leader, that Leader's ability to inspire discipline is greatly enhanced.

Now that's my judgement. You may not agree with it. Of course you're not bound to agree with it. But you perhaps should take into account, before you dismiss it, the judgement of someone else, of one of my predecessors, of the person who devised the present rules under whose leadership they were introduced.

This week William Hague made it clear that he, like me, supports this rule change. Now, of course, you can set aside his judgement as well. But if these changes don't get through that's what you'd be doing.

What are the arguments against?

Earlier this week some very distinguished senior offices of the Convention said that the Party needs to reach out to new supporters and that you can't do this if Members of Parliament make the final choice.

Well I entirely agree with the first part of that proposition. But I'm afraid that I just don't think the second part follows at all.

You reach out to new supporters by strong clear-minded leadership of a disciplined and united Parliamentary Party not by a protracted period of inconclusive wrangling over matters which are of no interest at all to the general public.

And, I repeat, choosing a Leader who does not command the support of a majority of Members of Parliament is not the best way of achieving the discipline and unity we need.

Be under no illusions. That is what you risk doing under the present system. It is also a possible consequence of an electoral college., in which a minority of MPs could combine with a majority of the rest of the college to impose a Leader the majority of MPs don't want. The only way to make sure, the only way, that the Leader has the support of the majority of MPs is through the change that is now proposed or very close to it.

Under these proposals there would be thorough consultation with the rest of the Party, with particular emphasis on the voluntary Party. It would be much more systematic and methodical than consultation under the old system, with the results being quantified and published. It would be swift, clear and cheap. It would deliver the Party a new Leader in a much shorter time than under the current system.

This isn't my own proposal. These ideas have been developed over many months in discussion between the senior voluntary Party officers and the Parliamentary Party. And let no-one try to contend that this is somehow being pushed through from the centre against the prevailing wind. As soon as I was elected I was being pressed by many in the voluntary Party to propose such a change. I didn't do so then because it would have been an unnecessary distraction from the central task of preparing for the election. But I promised I would deal with it immediately afterwards and I have kept that promise.

Such polling as has been done confirms my impression that most of our members in the country support such a change. You will probably be familiar with the YouGov survey published in the Telegraph some weeks ago which showed that more than 70 per cent of our members thought that MPs should have the final say - more than three times the number who wanted it to remain with the membership - and about the same as the proportion of MPs who support the change.

Are there any lessons to be learned from elsewhere?

Well yes. As it happens I think there are. The centre right Party which has enjoyed the greatest electoral success over the last decade - and probably has most in common with us - is the Australian Liberal Party.

Last month I asked John Howard how his Party selects its leader. "We leave it to the MPs", he said. "They decide".

No system is perfect, just like democracy itself. A search for illusory perfection is all too likely to turn into the enemy of the good.

So for the sake of our Party and, more importantly for the sake of our country, I hope that when it comes to the vote, the proposed changes win your support. A great deal depends on your decision".

Thank you for listening."

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