Michael Howard talks to the EADT

Tory leader Michael Howard talks to EADT Political Editor Graham DinesOPPOSITION leaders have to be optimists. It comes with the territory. And Michael Howard is no exception, even though the opinion polls indicate the Tories are heading for their third massive defeat in eight years.

Tory leader Michael Howard talks to EADT Political Editor Graham Dines

OPPOSITION leaders have to be optimists. It comes with the territory. And Michael Howard is no exception, even though the opinion polls indicate the Tories are heading for their third massive defeat in eight years.

Tory conference delegates woke on Monday morning to a poll rating for the Conservatives of just 28% - even worse than a year ago when the party as lead by Ian Duncan Smith.

And last week the party was pushed in fourth place in the Hartlepool by-election, a seat the party held between 1959 and 1964.

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But you shouldn't believe everything you read in the polls, says Mr Howard and he certainly doesn't.

“The same polling organisation that put us on 28% had asserted, two days before the European and council elections in June, that Labour was on 31% and the Tories on 26%, but just look what happened,” says Mr Howard.

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“Labour was pushed into third place behind the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the council polls. In Europe, Labour's share of the vote was the lowest in its history. We got 35% of the vote, the Lib Dems 28% and Labour 21%.

“In the past 12 months, we have gained 20,000 new members, and we have more members in our party than Labour and the Conservatives combined. That's real progress.

“The Hartlepool by-election result was very bad for us. I am not trying to disguise that. But I happen to agree with Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott who says by-elections are no guide to the outcome of a General Election.”

While it might be cavalier and foolhardy to dismiss poll ratings that you don't like, it is difficult to disagree with Mr Howard's view that the Tories are having “a very good conference.”

I have been to every Tory conference since the disaster of the 997 General Election and this is the most upbeat of them all. The change in both mood and outlook the past 12 months has been electric.

The Blackpool conference of 2003 had an acrid, poisonous atmosphere with the party in open revolt against the leadership of Iain Duncan Smith. The irony is that the Tory poll ratings - which Mr Howard likes to dismiss - are actually far worse now than they were in the dying days of Mr Duncan Smith's stewardship.

But the Tories are united and this has allowed Mr Howard, in his first conference as leader, to exert his influence over a party desperate for power again.

Mr Howard was able to relax as we spoke in one of the Bournemouth Highcliff Hotel's private suites reserved for the leader and his staff, having just returned from an early morning visit with Shadow Home Secretary David Davis to a rehabilitation centre for drug addicts in Boscombe.

Once this conference is out of the way, the serious business of selling the party's message to a sceptical public gets under way. Unless the Tories can win seats such as Braintree, Harwich, and Great Yarmouth from Labour and Colchester from the Lib Dems, Mr Howard has no chance of becoming Prime Minister.

The message to be sold centres on trust, which strategists have identified as the big weakness in Labour's armoury. “Everyone knows that trust in politicians is at an all time low,” says Mr Howard.

“People feel let down by Tony Blair and his Government and this affection has spread over all of us. That's very bad for democracy.”

Today the Tories launch their Timetable for Action, designed to say what the party will do within the first hour, the first day, the first week and the first month one of winning the General Election.

Within an hour, the Tories will ban party political advisers telling civil servants what to do and will make the Office for National Statistics independent of ministers.

Within the first day, there will be a freeeze on civil service recruitment, police officers will not have to fill in forms every time they stop someone, a date for a referendum on the European Constitution will be set, the decision to reclassify drugs will be reversed, headteachers will have control over school expulsions, health service targets will be abolished, and a Minister for Homeland Security will be appointed with responsible for counter intelligence and emergency panning.

They will be promises that Mr Howard says he will not renege on. “With our Timetable for Action, we are putting ourselves on the line like no other party has done before. It is a risk, but I want to be held to account so that we can restore trust in our democratic process.

“The Timetable will clearly set out promises and when we intend to carry them out. People will see that very clearly.”

As for hunting, if Parliament outlaws it next month, he would allow MPs after the next General Election a free vote to reverse it.

While not condoning the direct action of countryside activists in the clashes in Westminster, the targeting of MPs, and dumping of dead animals on the streets of Brighton, he believes it is an issue that Parliament must revisit.

But not hare coursing, which is also set to be made illegal. The Tories, he says, have not yet decided whether to let allow the ban on coursing to stand.

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