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British Tories beset by joblessness, riots, Labour gains. Conservatives know their image suffering, but feel media treatment is unfair

Outside, Lancashire police mounted the largest-ever security operation in mainland Britain in anticipation of the annual Conservative Party conference. Inside, as the party faithful filed into the ornately gilt Winter Garden, venue for so many British political party conferences, the organist struck up with ``Stranger in Paradise.''

For first-time Conservative delegates to Blackpool, the tune struck a strangely ironic note. Right now, for Conservatives, the political landscape is more a wilderness than a paradise.

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A BBC television poll released yesterday, the day the conference began, showing that one out of every four people who voted Conservative in 1984 thought the Tories were ``bad for Britain.''

Potentially even more worrying is the breakthrough by Labour Party opposition leader Neil Kinnock. After his success in putting Labour's extreme leftists -- such as Arthur Scargill, head of the coal miner's union -- firmly in their place at the recent party conference, as many as 74 percent thought Mr. Kinnock would make an ``excellent'' prime minister.

Beset by rising unemployment and urban rioting, the Conservatives here know their public image is suffering, but they don't feel they're getting a square deal from the news media.

They're puzzled why more is not being said about the country's economic recovery, with growth rates higher than those on the Continent; about record investment; the ending of the year-long miners' strike; and the containment of trade union power. Yet there is every sign here that they intend to fight out of their midterm doldrums.

Some inkling of the aggressive new spirit that the party intends to employ when it comes to fight the next election was provided by the party's new ``no-holds barred'' chairman and election campaign manager, Norman Tebbit.

In a withering attack on Labour, Mr. Tebbit said, by way of discounting the widely proclaimed success of last week's Labour Party conference, that comrades in that party were united ``in fraternal detestation of each other's guts.''

Yet as everyone here privately admits, what will actually win the Conservatives the next election is how well it deals with unemployment. Unemployment has become the millstone around the Conservative Party's neck.

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A former leading Conservative, who asked not be identified, said that unemployment is the greatest challenge facing his party. This sentiment is borne out by polls that put unemployment as the most obvious reason for Tory unpopularity.

Unemployment has also proved a convenient opposition stick to beat the government and to fix the label of ``uncaring'' on Mrs. Thatcher.

Thatcher has tried to offset her schoolmarm image by dropping her voice an octave, sounding soothing, and cultivating a grandmotherly image. She has also tried to glamorize her party's image by appointing younger, more charismatic people to key positions.

But in making the youthful Jeffrey Archer, a best-selling novelist, deputy chairman of the party, she may have unleashed an unguided missile.

When record unemployment was announced last week, Mr. Archer ventured that the Conservatives could not hope to win a general election on the present figures. Party professionals are aghast that Archer could have uttered what might be construed as a self-fulfilling prophecy since most economists are resigned to unemployment rising further.

Archer then claimed that Britain's high unemployment could in part be explained by the fact that ``many of the young unemployed . . . are quite unwilling to put in a day's work.'' How else, he wanted to know, could one explain a situation where work vacancies could not be filled in areas of high unemployment.

While Archer was able to cite figures to prove his point, the tenor of his comments, implying that the unemployed are idle shirkers, touched a raw political nerve at party headquarters.

As if to distance themselves from such remarks many at the Conservative Party have tried hard to convey an image of a party that realizes state resources are limited but sees that it has a duty to those in genuine need.

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