Howard and his team take flight from Labour's vision of 'a country called Europe'

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Michael Howard bit into a smoked salmon sandwich as the 29-seat twin propeller aircraft bucked wildly and dropped through the cloud to Edinburgh airport.

Retaining his reputation for icy coolness, Mr Howard said: "I am usually a good flyer but I hope I don't have to put that to the test.'' His director of communications, Guy Black, who has received counselling for his fear of flying, resorted to a tot of sloe gin.

It was the only turbulence the Howard team faced on a day of carefully stage-managed events before an invited Conservative audience to launch their European manifesto: at the Granada studios in Manchester, Murrayfield rugby stadium in Edinburgh and City Hall, Cardiff. Until 10 June, when the polls open, Mr Howard is promising to take his message all over the UK that Conservatives do not want a European constitution. "We don't want to be part of a country called Europe," he told supporters.

The proposed EU constitution was all wrong, he warned: "It would give the European Union the trappings of statehood: its own president, foreign minister and legal system."

Mr Howard's tour will take in Gibraltar, treated like a county of England for the purposes of the elections after the 18,000 voters on the Rock won the right to cast their votes in Britain.

Ballot papers from Gibraltar will be taken to Bristol on 10 June and counted in the South West regional election. The Tories, who are hoping most of them will go their way, feel that visiting the Rock is like turning back the clock to the heyday of Thatcherism. One grandee in Mr Howard's plane said: "When you go down the main street, you get mobbed. It's like another world.'' A signed speech by Michael Ancram, the portly deputy leader of the Conservative Party, sold for £360 in an auction on the Rock. Tory MEPs will be spending euro expenses on regular trips to Gibraltar for the campaign.

Mr Howard is hoping that his heartfelt Eurosceptic message will help turn the tide against Labour between now and the general election, for which the European elections are being treated as a dry run.

When the son of a refugee from Transylvania says he wants to "preserve national control over asylum, immigration and defence policy,'' you believe him. Yesterday, the message was the same in all three countries he visited: he would trust the people. "I do not want a Europe which is a one-way street to closer integration to which all must subscribe," he said. The party's European manifesto makes plain Conservative opposition to many of the grand EU projects. Putting Britain First will disappoint any integrationists planning a United States of Europe.

The Conservatives will oppose any move towards common policies on immigration and asylum, defence and justice. There would be opt-outs in addition to those on the euro and the Schengen agreement on open borders within the EU. The European Commission should lose its monopoly right to initiate legislation but should share it with member states. European defence initiatives must be carried out only within the framework of Nato. And, crucially, says the 25-page document, there should be compulsory referendums on any significant European treaty changes.

Mr Howard wants a new veto, or "red card", against Brussels that would force the Commission to withdraw or repeal laws that are opposed in the parliaments of five member states.

"We will be in the forefront of efforts to improve relations with the US at all levels," the manifesto says. "Our vision is a fully-fledged transatlantic market place by 2015. We believe Britain must retain her own seat on the UN security council. These rights are not to be ceded to the EU." The Tory leader is also supporting an attack on EU sleaze -- MEPs should be paid the same as MPs; they should pay tax at the same rate as their constituents; and expenses must be fully transparent.

The £120 million cost of "disruptive shuttling" for the Parliament between Brussels and Strasbourg would be ended. Brussels would become the Parliament's permanent home.

The European revolution planned by the Conservatives would not end there. The manifesto promises to scrap the common agricultural and fisheries policy in its present form. There would be more caution on genetically modified crops and testing for cosmetics would be phased out.

But for all the policy ideas, the new leader has some way to go in pressing his message in the flesh, judging by the member of the ground staff at Manchester who did not know the leader of Her Majesty's Opposition. "They keep changing them,'' she said.

Some Tory Europhile MEPs showed they did not care too much for the Euroscepticism in the manifesto. "Once it's over, we can ignore all that,'' said one MEP.

Conservative organisers limited questions from Scottish journalists, but this backfired when the only question they wanted an answer to was about the expenses claim by Scottish MEP Struan Stevenson, who was also in the room and has become embroiled in the row over payment of a £262 daily attendance allowance at the European Parliament.

On board his campaign aircraft for the last leg of the flight to Wales, Mr Howard, who has paraded his "boyo'' credentials, asked an aide for Newsweek and The Spectator. "We only have Newsweek,'' she said. "Circulation of The Spectator in Scotland is very restricted.'' A memorandum is on its way to Boris Johnson, the Conservative MP who also happens to be editor of the magazine.

Deprived of his reading, Mr Howard chatted amiably with the travelling press, saying he believed Mr Blair would not climb out of the "trough'' he is in. There was only one subject on which Mr Howard became coy. Asked whether he thought, like Tony Blair, that Gerard Houllier, manager of Liverpool, Mr Howard's favourite football team, would go "on and on and on'', he replied: "I will not be drawn on Mr Houllier's future.'' He clearly thinks it is more limited than Mr Blair's.

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