Faithful carried away on wave of hope

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The Independent Online

Chief Political Correspondent

The Tory faithful yesterday left Blackpool feeling they had been given a fighting chance to win the next general election by John Major's "come back" speech to the Conservative Party conference.

Many activists returned to their constituencies prepared to fight a general election next October - six months earlier than expected.

Putting behind them the defection of Alan Howarth to Labour, which had threatened to cast a pall over the conference, the Tory constituency rank and file left Blackpool in fighting mood. As they poured out of the Winter Gardens, several said it put "clear blue water" between the Tories and Labour Party.

"This is the fight-back. This week has not always been the most glitzy conference but it has given us the fighting spirit, not just on crime but on Europe - the rhetoric was just what was wanted. There is real clear blue water between us and Labour now," said a close ally of Baroness Thatcher, Gerald Howarth, the prospective parliamentary candidate for Aldershot.

As a right-winger, Mr Howarth was also delighted by the Prime Minister's apparent endorsement of Michael Portillo's controversial speech, attacking the idea of a European defence force.

Jim Brown, 34, a chartered accountant from Kingston and Surbiton, said that the policy commitments by the Prime Minister could win over the Conservative supporters who were threatening to stay at home at the next election.

"The Tory voters did not come out in the local elections. They stayed at home. But they won't do that now at the general election," he said.

The Prime Minister's law and order measures inspired 75-year-old Harry Purcell of Wyre Forest. "We have got a rough battle on our hands and he has given us a fighting chance.

"I liked the 5,000 extra police. There is a feeling among the younger element they want change. We have got to convince them what that change could do to them."

Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, said it had wrested back Tony Blair's claim to represent "One Nation" values and ideals. "This was a speech of a Prime Minister rising above any section interests," Mr Heseltine said.

Angela Knight, a Treasury minister, said: "It's given us a sharper edge. People wanted to see us sharpening up our appeal and he has hit the right notes, very strongly."

Mark Orr, 33, a print broker from Luton, was dressed in a Union Jack outfit, with a Union Jack flag around his shoulders. He said: "I came to this conference as I have always done, thinking of myself as a Thatcherite.

"I now realise I am a Majorite because he is tackling the things that I think are important - the serious issues of crime and education, not dealing with squeegee merchants but tackling the hard offenders."

Mr Major's speech also inspired the young wing of the Conservative Party. "What John Major did today was solidify a feeling of unity in the leadership election. He has given us confidence that we can win the next general election," said Martyn Gorse, an 18-year-old from north Dorset.

Ian Lang, the President of the Board of Trade and a close friend of the Prime Minister, said that it was the best speech he had ever heard Mr Major deliver. "It has been a very good conference. We are going away to fight Labour with renewed vigour."

David Shaw, a right-wing Tory MP defending the highly marginal Dover constituency, was delighted education and law and order policies had put "clear blue water" between the Tories and Tony Blair's Labour Party.

"The Prime Minister is now carrying out a distinctive education policy which is has a very Conservative philosophy. On assisted places, he is doing things Margaret Thatcher couldn't achieve," Mr Shaw said.