Focus: Who are you calling an opportunist ?

'Tony Blair supported Michael Foot to join the Labour Party, joined CND to progress in the Labour Party, did over his best friend to lead the Labour Party. Tony Blair is opportunism personified.' Francis Elliott finds the Tory leader on fighting form on the election battle bus
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Indy Politics

The delivery may be measured but the anger is real. "This is the most opportunist party there has been in modern British politics." Michael Howard pauses, more to check his rising ire than to formulate the next sentence. "Tony Blair supported Michael Foot, joined CND to progress in the Labour Party, did over his best friend to lead the Labour Party. Tony Blair is opportunism personified."

The delivery may be measured but the anger is real. "This is the most opportunist party there has been in modern British politics." Michael Howard pauses, more to check his rising ire than to formulate the next sentence. "Tony Blair supported Michael Foot, joined CND to progress in the Labour Party, did over his best friend to lead the Labour Party. Tony Blair is opportunism personified."

Quite an outburst for a man not known to lose his cool easily - but then it has been a difficult morning.

We are cocooned inside Mr Howard's battle bus on the road between Gloucester and Worcester as the campaign trail steers a course through the West Country towards Thursday's local and European elections.

The day's papers are dominated by two stories - the surprise surge in support for the United Kingdom Independence Party and the rising price of oil.

That morning the Tory leader has used the second to counter the first when he aligned himself firmly with those threatening another wave of fuel protests, saying that he would support them if they were "lawful and peaceful".

Two hours after that radio interview, the intervention looks like backfiring as it becomes clear that it has excited newsrooms back in London sensing a possible gaffe. Speaking to The Independent on Sunday, Mr Howard seems keen to tone down his support for fuel protesters saying, for instance, that he can't envisage supporting a new blockade of oil refineries.

"I doubt that [a blockade] would be [lawful]. I don't support anything that isn't lawful or peaceful. It would be much the best thing if the Government says soon that it's not going to institute the September [tax] rise."

Raise the possibility that his intervention might be seen as a shade, well opportunist, and it lights the blue touch paper.

Once he has shredded Mr Blair, the Tory leader adds: "If I don't talk about things like that, I am not doing my job properly."

Forced on the defensive by the surprise surge in support for UKIP, Mr Howard denies that he is feeling the heat. "I don't feel any pressure at all. The elections are a test, I accept that. But UKIP, is it a test? I don't think I do [accept that].

The Tory leader dismisses as "complete nonsense from beginning to end" the claim that he is reaping a eurosceptic whirlwind he stirred up. He says that his party is no different from Labour in having within its ranks people with widely differing views on the European Union.

The Tory leader last spoke to Ken Clarke "about three weeks ago," he says. He admits, however, that the "advisory council" of Mr Clarke, Iain Duncan Smith, William Hague and John Major, set up as part of an effort to draw a line under the divisions of the past, has met just once.

"We've had one dinner and we have been trying very hard to arrange another one. Because John Major and Ken Clarke are out of the country a lot it has been very hard to fix it, but we are trying to fix it up," he said.

To be fair, Mr Howard hardly has time on his hands himself at the moment, criss-crossing the country by bus and helicopter. On the stump, he is an impressive campaigner. On his walkabouts he is energetic and charming.

His silk-lined suit jacket stays on the bus and he takes to the streets in shirtsleeves, bouncing from one side of a shopping mall to the other, relentlessly pumping hands.

The ponderous Duncan Smith and wispy Hague did not do this so well despite far more supporting flummery.

He says he enjoys it and the reaction from voters, if warm, does seem to buoy him up. It's a good show with moments of the sort of slapstick comedy that flow when professional politics collide with the real world.

Mr Howard risks reminding voters of his Transylvanian heritage when he visits Gloucester's historic Crypt School and is lucky that the travelling photographers cannot quite get him and the school's giant sign in the same frame.

However, he cannot escape the bearded protester with a garlic bulb around his neck who harries him through the streets of Gloucester shouting the merits of non-selective education.

In Worcester there is a priceless moment when the Tory leader asks a group of three girls why they are wearing giant red and white hats.

Incredulous, they fill him in on the small matter of the Euro 2004 football tournament, England's involvement in it and the national flag.

Mr Howard, a keen Liverpool fan, is momentarily aghast at his mistake but recovers well to give his analysis of the England team's strike force based on the Japan friendly (Owen is better than Rooney).

The day that The Independent on Sunday catches up with him there is little evidence of support for UKIP on the streets in this part of the world.

Save for one Tory voter with a placard and a megaphone, no one but Mr Howard is talking about the EU. (The would-be heckler is foiled by an enterprising aide who engages him in earnest debate about the merits of withdrawal, which keeps him from his megaphone during an impromptu speech by the Conservative leader.)

Back on board his campaign bus, complete with the slogan "Putting Britain first", a regional agent is overheard telling the Tory leader that UKIP is proving a problem in those areas without council elections. But where there are no local issues on which to campaign, it seems traditional Tory support is flirting with outright withdrawal from the EU.

His aides say that they detect a strong regional element to UKIP's support. They say the further north the campaign bus travels, it peters out in favour of the BNP. The local elections may have been dominated by the fringe parties but Mr Howard faces a much more formidable foe when it comes to the general election.

The Tory leader is reluctant to speculate on what would happen if Gordon Brown, not Tony Blair, led Labour into the next national poll, but he insists that he is prepared for that possibility.

"We will be ready for that ... Brown is not some sort of new figure who has just arrived on the scene. He's been Chancellor for seven years. He is responsible for 66 tax rises; he is responsible for the extra burden of regulation and he's been responsible for many of the Government's failures to reform - so I am not dismayed of having those arguments."

Mr Howard likes to taunt the Prime Minister with questions about how long he intends to cling to Number 10. But can he give an assurance that he will fight the general election after next as the Tory leader?

"If I win. To serve a full term, yes." And if not? "Then there are a huge range of possibilities and we will have to wait to see what happens."

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