Mr Howard and survival of the Tories

Michael Howard has a fight on his hands to get close to Labour at the next election. But at last, a Tory leader has the luxury of a united party behind him.

Michael Howard has a fight on his hands to get close to Labour at the next election. But at last, a Tory leader has the luxury of a united party behind him. Political Editor watched Mr Howard's speech in Bournemouth yesterday.

ONE speech to one party conference is not going to guarantee Michael Howard is handed the keys to Downing Street.

But yesterday's appearance at his first - and probably the last - Conservative conference before the next General Election was a crucial test of Mr Howard's ability to re-establish the Tories' own self belief and to re-connect if with an electorate which still harbours a deep grudge against the Thatcher-Major years.

It was a powerful and compelling speech. Yes, he was speaking directly to 2,000 party faithful in Bournemouth. But, in reality his words were pitched the voters who are telling the opinion pollsters that Tony Blair has lost their trust.

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Perversely, those same polls still indicate that Labour is on course to win an historic third term at the General Election. It is a conundrum that the Tories have to overcome if they are to get anywhere near winning the 130 seats necessary for power.

Mr Howard's speech was astutely timed, coming half way through the conference rather than as the traditional rallying call to arms delivered by Tory leaders at the end of the conference.

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It started before mid-day, to capture the lunchtime radio and television headlines, to hog the limelight through the peak evening peak, and to set the agenda for the following day's newspapers.

And he had the unusual luxury of speaking to a united Conservative Party, one which has turned its back on divisions and plotting as it faces up to taking on Tony Blair at the next election.

Mr Howard, lampooned over the years as a Dracula-figure, cold, and on the hard right of politics, yesterday showed his human side, as he recounted family tragedies. There was the case of his mother-in-law, who died two years ago from a hospital acquired infection.

“Yes, she was old. Yes, she was frail. But she still enjoyed life. She need not have died.”

Her death, said Mr Howard, was part of the malaise that has hit Britain under Tony Blair's government. “Billions of pounds of taxpayers' money has been spent on the NHS. And what have we got to show for that?

“Bureaucrats, people waiting in pain for operations, dirty hospitals. More people die every year from hospital infections than are killed on Britain's roads.”

And then there was his family's flight from the Nazis before World War II, ending up in the safe haven of Wales.

“I was born in July 1941, two weeks after Hitler invaded Russia. Those were very dark days.

“Many lost their lives in the concentration camps set up by one of the cruellest tyrannies the world has ever known. My grandmother was one of those killed in the concentration camps.

“If it hadn't been for Winston Churchill, and if it hadn't been for Britain, I would have been one of them too.”

Mr Howard moved to shore up the party's Eurosceptic agenda, promising to hold immediately a referendum on the proposed European Constitution should the Tories win the General Election.

“Europe isn't working properly and the Constitution will only make matters worse. The British people do not want to be part of a European super state.

“It's not enough to say no to the European Constitution, although a Conservative government will. It is not enough to say no to the euro, although a Conservative government will.

“It's time we went further. We want out of the social chapter, which is a threat to British jobs. We want out of the common fisheries policy, which is destroying communities.”

But time and again, his speech was littered with references to accountability and trust, which he believes are winning cards for the Tories against Tony Blair's government.

Mr Howard stopped short of repeating his magazine interview last week in which he accused the Prime Minister of lying over the reasons for going to war over Iraq.

But although he said it was right to go to war - “the world is a better place without Saddam Hussein” - he said the truth should have been told.

“In the run-up to the war, Tony Blair did not tell the truth. He did not give a truthful account of the intelligence he received. He did not behave as a British Prime Minister should.

“It is a question of credibility. I hope we never face another war.

“But the world is a very dangerous place, and you can never be sure.

“What if this Prime Minister asks people to trust him again? Could the British people trust him a second time?”

The speech gave the Tory faithful heart. And that in itself is a major achievement after all the infighting and turmoil since the Maastrict mayhem of 11 years ago.

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