A bad press, a tough day. But still Howard is defiant on immigration

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After having a good day on Monday, Michael Howard was greeted by a crop of surprisingly bad newspaper headlines yesterday when he arrived at Tory headquarters at 7.30am for his first meeting of the day.

After having a good day on Monday, Michael Howard was greeted by a crop of surprisingly bad newspaper headlines yesterday when he arrived at Tory headquarters at 7.30am for his first meeting of the day.

On Monday, he had put Tony Blair on the defensive on pensions and forced him to water down his claim about "Tory charges" on the NHS. But yesterday's papers were dominated by internal Tory dissent over his stance on immigration, tax and the party's failure to break through in a clutch of gloomy opinion polls.

"That's life. I am long past the moment where I am surprised by headlines," he says in an interview with The Independent as he travels to Peterborough.

It seems that the Tory leader is now having a bad day. At his 8.45am news conference, he launched a five-point plan to tackle the "yob culture" but the media wasn't interested. Most of the questions flowed from the damaging headlines about the Tory campaign and Mr Howard's warning the previous night that good community relations would be put at risk if the immigration problem is not tackled.

What should have been "crime day" in the Tories' masterplan - yesterday was "D16", 16 days to polling day - has already been overtaken by internal rumblings.

Things go from bad to worse when Mr Howard's helicopter develops a computer fault. After kicking his heels at Battersea Heliport, he is told that he will have to get to Peterborough by road. Precious campaigning time is being lost while his Jaguar is stuck in London traffic. In another change of plan he heads for Kings Cross and the train. He is running 50 minutes late - a lot with his crammed diary.

Yet Mr Howard seems far from rattled. He apologises profusely to a television crew travelling with him, like a tour operator anxious to take personal responsibility for letting down his customers even though the problem is beyond his control.

During the train journey, the Tory leader is equally unmoved by the furore provoked by his remarks on Jonathan Dimbleby's Ask the Leader programme on ITV. Was his warning about community relations his "Enoch Powell" moment? "I think that's ridiculous," he snaps.

Did he ever worry that he might unwittingly put community relations at risk by giving immigration such a high profile in his campaign? "No. I have thought this through very carefully. I know that some people disagree with my view. They are perfectly entitled to their view. I am entitled to talk about it."

Did he rethink his strategy when people like Federico Mazandarani, the Jewish refugee featured in The Independent on Saturday, warned him his outspoken remarks would cause more racially motivated attacks? "No. All I want is an honest debate. It should not be a debate which degenerates into name calling."

When he stood unopposed for the Tory leadership 18 months ago, Mr Howard said his party must stand for "all Britain and all Britons". He hasn't said it lately but insists the mantra still applies. "I meet all the time people from the ethnic minority communities who share my views. We are an inclusive party. We have more candidates from ethnic minorities than any other party and I am proud of that."

Mr Howard is adamant that no Tory frontbencher or candidate has asked him to tone down his language on immigration, as one front page story claimed yesterday. "It is completely untrue," he says. "There have been no such calls to me or my office."

He suspects his critics in the Labour Party and the media are trying to force him off the immigration issue because he has struck a chord with the voters. "I am sure there are people who would prefer me not to talk about it. I am not going to be intimidated. I am going to continue to talk about all the issues which I believe are important to the future of the country."

Mr Howard dismisses the idea that he is underfire from his party's wings - from the left on immigration and the right over failing to promise more eye-catching tax cuts. The tax criticism is harder to shrug off because some Tory candidates have stated their disappointment publicly. One concern is that the proposed £1.7bn of tax relief on pensions - part of the party's £4bn package of tax cuts - will not be felt in people's wallets.

"The pensions timebomb is one of the greatest challenges facing the country. We have got to think long-term," he says. "I am not the kind of person who does things for a quick headline. This is a very responsible measure to take. It might not make an attractive headline but it is the right thing to do."

The Tory leader has an answer for those demanding the red meat of income tax cuts. "The choice people face is significant. It is not between £4bn of tax cuts and the status quo. It is between a Conservative Government that would cut taxes by £4bn and a Labour Government that would increase taxes by between £10bn and £11bn."

He quotes the Institute for Fiscal Studies in support. But didn't the IFS also say the overall tax burden would rise under the Tories? He does not deny it, but insists the burden would be "significantly lower" than under Labour.

Contradicting the message from the opinion polls, Mr Howard is sure the voters could enjoy the best of both worlds -tax cuts and matching Labour's spending on key services. But won't the Tory plan to meet half the cost when NHS patients opt for private treatment take £1.2bn out of the NHS, to the disadvantage of the least well off who can't even contemplate going private?

"You can argue that," Mr Howard says in a rare concession. But he goes on to argue that the 220,000 people who are paying for one-off private treatment are relieving pressure on the NHS and deserve some help. He insists they are making room on the NHS waiting list for people who can't go private, so everyone benefits under his scheme.

What would Mr Howard say to an Independent reader who could not support Mr Blair because of Iraq but could not vote Tory because the party also supported the war? "We did support the war. I understand that many people disagree with that and I respect their view. It was quite wrong for Mr Blair to distort the intelligence and not tell the British people the truth. It was foolish to have gone to war without a plan for the future of Iraq. It was wrong to disband the Iraqi army and police."

He promises that an incoming Tory Government would publish the Attorney General's still-secret legal advice given to Mr Blair in the run-up to the conflict.

However, Iraq does not feature much in the Tory campaign. Nor does Europe, which loomed large in William Hague's 2001 campaign. Mr Howard says it is "difficult to make Europe an issue" because Mr Blair has promised a referendum on the EU constitution.

A repeated criticism of his campaign is that it is too negative and lacks a positive vision. He denies the charge of using "dog whistle politics" to target groups of voters on issues like immigration with a message they want to hear.

"I don't talk in code. Some people accuse me of being too blunt," he says. He rejects the notion that he is shoring-up the Tory core vote this time in the hope that the party can win the election after next. "I don't meet core voters. I meet voters of every description and every kind of background. If all the people who talk to me on crime and immigration were part of the Tory core vote, we would have a huge core vote."

Labour has dubbed him "Victor Meldrew" and a caller to a radio phone-in on Monday likened him to grumpy, old Mr Burns in The Simpsons. Mr Howard's reply was to say that Mr Blair is a "better actor" than he is. There is not much love between the two leaders. Mr Howard seems to think his opponent is his best asset: in the interview, it is striking that he rarely uses the phrase "Labour", preferring to criticise "Mr Blair" at every opportunity.

He says people are entitled to their opinions of him but believes the grumpy old man image is unfair. He would like his critics to walk into a pub and ask people what issues they cared about. He is pretty sure the answers would include the five-point mantra he repeats at every turn - crime, immigration, dirty hospitals, school discipline and taxes. Mr Howard adds that he never highlights a problem without proposing a solution.

Despite headlines like yesterday's, he insists he is enjoying the campaign. "I have always enjoyed election campaigns," he says. "It's great to get out and meet people."

However, the only people he meets in Peterborough are police and local journalists, although he does meet some "real ones" at a forum on crime in Nottingham later. After a round of interviews with local television and radio, he notes with satisfaction that the issue that comes up most often is immigration, a live local issue in Peterborough, which he sees as a vindication for his strategy.

The former Home Secretary is playing at home when he tours the Thorpe Wood Police Station, where he expressed his delight at the latest DNA equipment being used to catch criminals. "I set up the first DNA database in the world," he explains excitedly. For a brief moment, it is almost as though he were still in office. Indeed, in one interview he talks of getting out of "Whitehall" into the real world.

Even his critics admit he is energetic. He has already clocked up 2,500 miles, more than Mr Blair and Charles Kennedy. "I know where I am now," he quips, "but if you ask me next week where I was today, I'm not sure I would remember."

At 63, is this Mr Howard's one shot at being Prime Minister? "I am only thinking about this election," he says. Does he want to lead his party into the referendum on Europe scheduled for next year, widely seen as the most likely launchpad for a Tory recovery? "I have an election to win," is all he will say.

His party is stuck in the polls but Mr Howard is remarkably upbeat about its prospects. Perhaps a bad day will be followed by good headlines. If he loses on 5 May, he will go down fighting his way. It is too late to change course now.

Life and times

* Born: 7 July 1941 in south Wales where his parents ran a clothes shop.

* Education: Llanelli Grammar School before winning a place at Peterhouse, Cambridge. At university Howard became involved in Conservative politics and was elected to the committee of the Cambridge University Conservative Association before becoming president of the Cambridge Union in 1962.

* Family: Married Sandra in 1975. Two children, Nicholas and Larissa.

* Career: Trained to be a barrister and was called to the Bar in 1964. In 1982, he was appointed as a QC. Elected as MP for Folkestone and Hythe in 1983. In 1984, he was appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Solicitor General. In 1990, he becameEmployment minister. After the 1992 election, he was appointed Environment minister. In 1993, he became Home Secretary, a job he held for four years. From 1997 to 1999, he was Shadow foreign secretary. In 2001, he was appointed Shadow chancellor of the exchequer. Elected Tory leader in 2003, after Ian Duncan Smith resigned.

* Profile: A two sided personality. In private, he is naturally charming, with a reserved, even shy demeanour. He plays the guitar, used to play in a skiffle group, is a cat lover and a Liverpool fan. In public, Howard is ambitious and driven, with an aggressive streak who enjoys a joust. He had a reputation as a government hard man under Thatcher and Major.