Tories urged to 'raise their game'

THE Conservative Party needs to "raise its game" if it is to mount a credible bid to unseat Prime Minister Tony Blair at the upcoming general election, Suffolk South MP Tim Yeo has said.

THE Conservative Party needs to "raise its game" if it is to mount a credible bid to unseat Prime Minister Tony Blair at the upcoming general election, Suffolk South MP Tim Yeo has said.

Mr Yeo said the party had made great strides in its first nine months under leader Michael Howard, but had now reached a "plateau" and needed renewed impetus to make further inroads into Labour's majority.

The shadow environment secretary was speaking yesterday as a poll showed Mr Howard's satisfaction ratings dipping to their lowest point since he became leader last November.

The survey for the Independent on Sunday found 42% of those questioned were "dissatisfied' with the Tory leader, against 26% who were "satisfied'.


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His overall rating of minus 16 was worse than that of former Labour leader Neil Kinnock at the same point in the 1983 and 1987 parliaments, and almost as bad as William Hague's a year before his 2001 election drubbing.

Mr Yeo acknowledged the Tories were in a far more difficult position to launch an assault on power now than Labour were in the run-up to the 1997 election, when the faltering Major administration offered Mr Blair's team "an open goal".

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While Mr Blair maintained double-figure leads in early 1997, the Tories under Mr Howard have rarely established an advantage of more than a couple of points and were one point behind Labour in yesterday's poll.

"The challenge for us is to mount an opposition at least as effective as Labour's was in the dying days of the Major government," Mr Yeo said.

"Actually, the goal they were shooting at then was a more open one than the present one is.

"It is of course the case that we need to raise our game. No-one is going to sit complacently in August and say we are doing fine."

Mr Yeo dismissed as "idle summer chit-chat' recent stories of internal dissent surrounding the so-called Notting Hill Set of young Tory modernisers.

And he played down the significance of criticisms of Mr Howard's performance by senior figures like Michael Portillo and Lord Tebbit following the Tories' third place in last month's Leicester and Birmingham by-elections. Both had been equally negative about his predecessor Iain Duncan Smith, he said.

"I don't think leadership is the problem at the moment," said Mr Yeo. "I think Michael Howard has the solid support of the vast majority of Conservative MPs and Conservative voters and deserves to do so."

Tory prospects now were far better than under Mr Duncan Smith, who had not been a "credible alternative" as Prime Minister.

"Of course we would rather be doing better in the opinion polls than we are," said Mr Yeo. "Of course we would rather have come first or second in the by-elections.

"But the truth is that those of us who have been working at the coalface for quite a long time now know where we were on August 1 last year.

"Now we have a leader who is a credible alternative to Tony Blair. Then we did not. Now the party is more united than it has been for a decade. Then it was not. Now, it is the Conservatives, actually, who are neck-and-neck with Labour in the overall polls."

He added: "We have had a huge mountain to scale. We have made very good progress. We are on a bit of a plateau at the moment, I acknowledge that, but you don't do these things all in one go."

Mr Howard was yesterday urged by former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind to take on Mr Blair on the traditionally left-wing territory of civil liberties and personal freedom.

Sir Malcolm, Tory election candidate for the safe seat of Kensington and Chelsea, called on Conservatives to stand up for the "traditional freedoms of the British people' against an authoritarian and killjoy Labour government.

Sir Malcolm's comments came shortly after the Prime Minister raised the hackles of many on his party's socially liberal wing by attacking the social reforms of the 1960s and calling for a clampdown on binge drinkers.

Mori interviewed 1,988 adults across Britain for the Independent on Sunday between July 22 and 27. The survey put Labour on 32%, just one point ahead of the Conservatives on 31%, with the Liberal Democrats putting in a strong showing at 24%.

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