Howard admits error in tactics over Iraq

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Michael Howard vowed last night to turn the political spotlight back on to traditional Conservative issues as he owned up to mistakes over Iraq.

His lacklustre Commons performance this week dismayed Tory MPs already downcast by two abject by-election performances and poor opinion poll ratings.

In a 15-minute speech to backbenchers, he conceded he had not had one of his finest weeks as Tory leader and urged the party not to lose its nerve.

Mr Howard is widely perceived to have flopped in the Butler report debate on Tuesday and to have made a tactical error two days earlier by announcing he would not have supported the Government in the eve-of-war vote on Iraq if he had known the intelligence justifying it was so flawed.

Although he believes the aftermath of the Butler inquiry still provides ammunition for undermining public trust in Tony Blair, Mr Howard made clear he wanted to return to Tory issues.

He signalled fresh policy initiatives on crime, immigration and taxation, areas where party strategists believe Labour is vulnerable. He also said the party would continue to campaign on health and education, while acknowledging that the best it could hope for was to neutralise the two issues.

A shadow Minister said: "We now need to come up with policies that have the 'wow factor' and make people sit up and notice us. It's not about moving to the Left or the Right, it's about capturing people's imagination."

Mr Howard admitted the party was not where he had wanted it to be by the summer and acknowledged that last week's by-election results in Leicester and Birmingham - in both of which the Tories fell to third place - were disappointing.

But with less than a year to the likely date of the next election, he insisted that the party should draw comfort from its efficient organisation in each of the campaigns.

Reflecting the determination to get back on to the domestic agenda, Mr Howard used the final Prime Minister's Questions before the summer recess to criticise Labour's "dismal" record on crime.

Despite winning cheers from the Tory benches, some MPs admitted to feeling downcast as they left Westminster for their summer break, which begins today. One characterised the parliamentary party's mood as "gloomy but not mutinous".

A Labour whip claimed: "You only had to see how few Tories were standing up to ask questions at the end of Prime Minister's Question Time to see what sort of mood they are in."

The Tories morale has been hit by a series of opinion polls showing the party lagging well behind the Government and vulnerable to a Liberal Democrat surge.

Senior figures at Conservative Central Office privately admit that it now looks impossible for the party to win the next election. One strategist privately fears the Tories may only gain about 50 seats at the election, which could leave Labour with a comfortable majority of about 60. In the party's view, the best hope is for the election to be delayed until 2006.

The Tories are now planning a publicity blitz over the summer designed to capture headlines and give the impression that the party has not lost any of its vigour after a difficult week.