Michael Howard talks to the EADT

Conservative leader Michael Howard gives an exclusive interview to EADT Political Editor Graham Dines ahead of a two-day visit to East Anglia.FIVE months ago, the Conservatives were in turmoil.

Conservative leader Michael Howard gives an exclusive interview to EADT Political Editor Graham Dines ahead of a two-day visit to East Anglia.

FIVE months ago, the Conservatives were in turmoil. Their conference had been destabilised by an unsubtle plot to overthrow leader Iain Duncan Smith - widely seen as an electoral liability - and the party was facing the prospect of a humiliating third election landslide defeat at the hands of a Labour government

Three weeks later, Tory MPs sacked IDS but pulled back from the brink of suicidal and bitter leadership contest by uniting behind one candidate, former Home Secretary Michael Howard.

Howard's election electrified the Tory Party. Morale at Westminster and in the country soared, former members returned to the fold, and the Conservatives suddenly found themselves no longer written off as no-hopers.


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Labour's confidence in a third victory was severely jolted. But even now, with the Conservatives believing in themselves once more, the electorate has still to warm to Howard's Tories.

Yes, they are ahead in the polls, but there's still a long way to go before they can claim to be in a position to actually win.

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The Tories need to win around 180 seats from Labour and the Lib Dems to form a government. It's a tall order by any standard.

Having cleared out Conservative Central Office, Howard has staff around him who are loyal and focussed on trying to pull off that victory.

No longer is the leader and his staff crammed into offices on two floors behind the Commons. They're to be found now in a complex on the Embankment, with sweeping views across the Thames to the London Eye.

"Aren't they much better," he enthused. Rejecting the Clubland-style Commons surroundings and with a leader's office which is a vast boardroom-cum-sitting room with one of the best views in London shows the Tories really do not want to look backwards.

Opposition leaders by their very nature have to be optimistic. There can be no outward sign that the prize of power may be beyond their grasp. Michael Howard is no exception.

"I'm in robust health and raring to go," he enthused, as we discussed when the General Election might be held. "I've been all over the country since November and I'll be doing much, much more."

Prediction of success goes with the territory, and East Anglia will be pivotal to any resurgence in Tory fortunes at the next election.

The Tory leader is too canny to predict specific victories, but party strategists must have already chalked up Braintree, Harwich, Great Yarmouth and Peterborough in the "in the bag" column.

But to win power, the Tories need to claw back North Norfolk, Colchester, Ipswich, Waveney, Basildon and Harlow. Michael Howard knows that, which is why he's embarking today on a two-day tour of Norfolk and Suffolk taking in the major battlegrounds of the two counties. Essex will follow soon.

His upbeat mood is based on the briefing notes he was given ahead of our interview, telling him of large swings from Labour in by-elections to Suffolk County Council and Waveney District Council. Nationally, he boasted that the Tories are polling 33%, the Liberal Democrats 29% and Labour 24%.

It seemed churlish, therefore, for me to inject a note of caution. Was it not the case the Tories had lost two seats in the past two months to the Liberal Democrats - at Yoxford in Suffolk Coastal and Hedingham-Maplestead in Braintree?

Well yes, but . . . "We have put on 20,000 new members since November. We have more paid up members than Labour and the Liberal Democrats put together. We are in good heart."

But those by-election loses? "Nine months ago, there was a lot of talk about the Lib Dems displacing us as the second party, but there's been none of that recently.

"They are able to target resources in council by-elections because they are not actually a national party - the odd gain here and there is a big deal for them."

He dismissed a suggestion that Lib Dem successes were based of their policy of replacing council tax with a local income tax. But with Labour promising a review of the tax, and the Lib Dems going all out to scrap, just what would the Tories offer the voters at the next election.

"I don't know. We have our own review going on. We're looking at local government finance, but it is very important that everybody understands that an average family, under the Lib Dem income tax, will pay 60-70% more than they do at the moment.

"That will be a heavy burden for people at a stage in their lives when it is quite difficult to make ends meet. Anybody who thinks that a local income tax is some sort of painless panacea is mistaken."

In the next two days, Michael Howard will be in Ipswich, Lowestoft, Great Yarmouth, Norwich and Cromer to press the flesh. East Anglia was hit particularly hard by the six times the rate of inflation council tax rises - he will discover his party needs a credible policy for financing local services, and soon.

HOWARD ON COUNCIL TAX RISES

"I AM not convinced council tax as such is the problem. Under Labour, council tax is being asked to carry a burden it was never intended to carry.

"The Government has increased costs to local authorities - these burdens have been put on without the resources necessary to meet these burdens. An imbalance has come about."

Did he regret introducing council tax in 1993? No, he insisted the present uproar over the tax was down fair and square to Tony Blair's government. "For four years, there was a council tax before Labour won in 1997 - we never had pensioners marching in the streets protesting because it was perfectly manageable. Since 1997, it has been perceived as a problem, because Labour has used it as a stealth tax."

HOWARD ON THOUSANDS OF NEW HOUSES IN THE SOUTH AND EAST

THE Conservatives will oppose plans unveiled in the Budget last week for between 70,000 and 120,000 new houses a year, much of it on open countryside in the South and East of England, with Essex set to bear the brunt. Around 60,000 are planned for a "new community" along the M11 corridor from Harlow toward Cambridge, centre on Stansted.

He blamed red tape and planning regulations, which prevented housing being built on Brownfield sites that nobody would object to being developed. "Last year, saw the fewest number of houses built in peacetime since 1924 - it's partly because of that that the Government is trying to overcompensate."

He conceded low cost homes had to be built for first time buyers but added: "The Government is making all these allocations of new housing without the provision of the infrastructure to go with it - the schools, hospitals, roads and other amenities."

"The decision on a second runway for Stansted airport took no account of the M11 housing proposals, which seems to me to be a nonsense. That calls the decision into question. How can you logically justify proceeding with a second runway and then say you want to build 60,000 houses under the flight path?"

HOWARD ON REGIONAL GOVERNMENT FOR THE EAST OF ENGLAND

"I HAVE never heard anyone call themselves an East of Englander. I am against regional government because I believe in bringing government closer to people rather than making it more remote from them.

"If you look at the Government's plans, none of the powers planned for regional government would come from Whitehall, they are all sucked up from local government. I believe in making decision making closer to people, not more remote.

"It is just another tier of government. I know of nobody who wants another tier of civil servants and elected politicians. I suppose it is all too likely that county councils will be sacrificed on the alter of regionalism."

HOWARD ON A REGIONAL FIRE SERVICE.

The Government's plans for a single fire control across the six counties were dismissed in just one word: "Absurd."

HOWARD ON POST OFFICE CLOSURES

"I SUPPORT localism. Post Offices are vital. The problem is new arrangements for paying benefits. It was put to us by civil servants when we were in government and we said no. We opposed it because we knew what a devastating effect closures would have on local communities. That's what this Government should have said no."

HOWARD ON DEVOLUTION

"MPs from Scottish constituencies should not vote in the Westminster Parliament on issues to devolved to Scotland. The Speaker would certify that all or part of a proposed Bill would not affect Scotland.

"We are no longer a unitary state in the way we were before devolution, nor are we a federalist state. We are a kind of uniquely British hybrid. Voting arrangements in the UK Parliament should reflect the fact that we are now this kind of hybrid."

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