Reception marks Tories' return

AN indication that the Conservatives are once again being taken seriously was the turn out for Michael Howard's media reception on Tuesday night – more than 200 journalists joined the Shadow Cabinet and Central Office staffers in a scrum around the new Tory leader.

AN indication that the Conservatives are once again being taken seriously was the turn out for Michael Howard's media reception on Tuesday night - more than 200 journalists joined the Shadow Cabinet and Central Office staffers in a scrum around the new Tory leader.

With Central Office about to be sold, it is probably the last time this legendary icon of the political establishment will see such a large gathering within its walls. At the last similar occasion, hosted by then leader Iain Duncan Smith in St Stephen's Club, the attendance was, to be charitable, slim.

The Tory leader was relishing the week ahead - preparing to challenge Mr Blair on the Hutton inquiry, launching of an offensive against Government waste at the Millennium Dome, and putting in the boot as Education Secretary Charles Clarke published controversial university top-up fees proposals.

The Tories have still a long way to go before they can honestly believe they can win a General Election. But at least they shared one piece of "good news" with Labour this week - support for the Liberal Democrats seems to be collapsing as an opinion poll shows a possible return to two-party politics in Britain.

The Howard effect has squeezed horribly the Liberal Democrats. A Populus poll for The Times puts Labour on 40%, the Tories on 35% and the Lib Dems on 18%. While the Lib Dem figure is only marginally lower than their General Election standing, support in the country now appears to be gravitating to the big two parties.

The 35% for the Tories is their highest January rating for 11 years. But they are still 5 points behind Labour when they need to be way ahead to have any chance of election victory.

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Yet it's a start. And if both main parties succeed in marginalising the Lib Dems, the result of the next election may be closer than anyone has so far dared to predict.

An indication of Michael Howard's desire to re-establish the Tories is the inclusion in the front bench team of former Armed Forces Minister Nicholas Soames, who has been handed the defence portfolio.

Mr Soames was deputy to Michael Portillo at the Ministry of Defence in the latter stages of John Major's government and many experts feel he would have made a better job of the number one slot than Portillo, whose SAS-style speech to the Tory Party conference still rankles with the military.

Nick Soames has an impeccable pedigree - grandson of Sir Winston Churchill, educated at Eton, military service in the 11th Hussars and one-time equerry to the Prince of Wales, who was best man at his wedding. He was personal assistant to Sir James Goldsmith and later to a United States senator, and has been an MP since 1983, starting his political career as Parliamentary private secretary to John Gummer when Chairman of the Conservative Party.

He may suffer from a fat boy of the fifth form remove image, but the larger than life 55 year-old has a steely determination, quick wit, and an easy grasp of his brief to give a much-needed touch of class to the Tories' at Westminster.

This week, he tore into the Government over leaked plans to mothball four of the Navy's anti-aircraft destroyers because of lack of funds - but fended off questions on how the Tories would fund defence by saying that was a decision "for someone higher up the pay scale."

Mr Soames said the threat to the warships - the Royal Navy will soon have fewer ships than the French - was part of a wider problem of under-funding of the armed forces. "The defence budget is in a real crisis and we must acknowledge that and we are going to have to deal with it.

"I think people will be quite astonished that - at a time when the forces have delivered so spectacularly - they should be in a period when it appears the Government are going to cut the resources that are their rightful due, given the operations they are now having to undertake.

"We aren't putting enough money into defence and we are going to have to find ways of getting more in."

In a statement, the Ministry of Defence says a decision on the 20 year-old destroyers - rumoured to be HM Ships Glasgow, Liverpool, Newcastle and Cardiff -has not been made but added: "Some of the older vessels contribute less well to anticipated pattern of future operations and work is ongoing to establish a sustainable future structure.

"We have made an order for six Type-45 destroyers and it is planned to procure up to 12 new ships."

THE New Year has started with a major row between the Liberal Democrat and UK Independence parties ahead of the quinquennial elections to the European Parliament in June.

Lib Dem Euro MP for the East of England Andrew Duff reacted furiously to a UKIP suggestion that the spate of letter bombs from Italy sent to leading European Union politicians - including Commission president Romano Prodi and Labour MEP Gary Titley - was "the price of forcing a political ideal on people without giving them a choice."

Mr Duff said it was "inexcusable" of UKIP to "seek to justify the pathetic efforts of Italian anarchists to maim Mr Prodi and other civilians.

"If UKIP sinks to the level of ETA and the IRA, decent people will know what to do with their candidates in this June's elections. Voters will reject these English ultra-nationalists and their sinister undertones."

But the UKIP MEP for the East of England, Jeffrey Titford, branded Mr Duff "hysterical." He added: "While we abhor violence in any form and would never condone it, we do understand the frustrations that might generate it.

"Mr Duff is one of the principle architects of the EU constitution, a document which seeks to relegate this country to the status of a rate-capped London borough. It would dramatically widen the huge democratic deficit that already exists between the unelected elite which runs the EU and ordinary people."

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