Howard: Back to basics

Tory leader lurches to right to blunt UKIP threat
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Indy Politics

Michael Howard tried yesterday to woo back disaffected Tory voters by highlighting Europe, immigration, crime and tax as he made clear he would fight the general election on a right-wing agenda.

Michael Howard tried yesterday to woo back disaffected Tory voters by highlighting Europe, immigration, crime and tax as he made clear he would fight the general election on a right-wing agenda.

Although his speech to the Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth raised the spirits of party activists, modernisers accused him of preaching to the Tory "core vote" rather than reaching out to the "middle ground" where they said the election would be decided.

Mr Howard hardened his rhetoric on Europe as he sought to stem a haemorrhage of support to the UK Independence Party, which backs withdrawal from the European Union and which pushed the Tories into a humiliating fourth place in last week's Hartlepool by-election. He said that only a Tory government would repatriate powers from Brussels by withdrawing from the social chapter of workers' rights and the common fisheries policy. On their first day in power, the Tories would set a date for an early referendum on the EU constitution. In a direct plea to UKIP supporters, Mr Howard said: "It's time to bring powers back to Britain. That's what most people want. But only a Conservative government can deliver it. So my message is simple: if you want to bring powers back from Brussels to Britain, whatever party you're from, come and join us."

The Tories, who are desperately worried that UKIP will deprive them of victory in some seats at the general election, received a fillip yesterday when Paul Sykes, the millionaire businessman and UKIP's main financial backer, withdrew his support because UKIP intends to field candidates in every seat - including those fought by Eurosceptic Tories.

Tory aides dismissed Labour claims that the speech amounted to a "lurch to the right", insisting that Mr Howard had not pandered to right wingers by changing his party's policies. But Tory modernisers expressed concern that Mr Howard appeared to abandon the socially liberal agenda that he embraced when he became party leader last November. At the time, he delighted Tory campaigners for racial and sexual equality by declaring that the Tories should be a party for "all Britain and all Britons".

After failing to make progress in the opinion polls, modernisers believe Mr Howard is gambling on a higher turnout among Tory than Labour supporters, many of whom are disenchanted with Tony Blair over Iraq. But one Tory left winger said: "It's not a strategy for winning the election. We have got to reach out beyond the core vote to win."

Tory strategists dismissed the charge, pointing out that Mr Howard highlighted health and education and measures to help millions of "hard-working families". They insisted that crime, immigration and tax were not only issues of concern for Tory supporters.

Although he outlined hardline policies, Mr Howard sought to project a softer image of himself to the voters. Some Tory activists wept as he described how his grandmother was killed in a Nazi concentration camp and declared that he wanted to give "a tiny bit back" to Britain because he owed "everything I am" to this country. Some MPs said the speech was the best to a Tory conference by a party leader for many years.

Promising to take the gloves off in the fight against crime, Mr Howard said the Tories would recruit an extra 5,000 police officers a year, cut paperwork for the police and scrap the scheme under which prisoners win early release from jail.

Pledging a "firm but fair" policy on immigration, the Tory leader said he would pull Britain out of the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and in his first month as prime minister would set out plans to impose an annual limit on the number of people coming to Britain.

While refusing to pledge specific tax cuts, he hinted strongly that they would be announced before the election. By cutting waste, the Tories would "put us back on the path to lower taxes". He added: "So be in no doubt. When I can, I will cut taxes."

Mr Howard suggested the Tories would target the poorest people, who "shoulder the highest burden", and middle-income earners such as teachers, doctors and police officers who had been sucked into the 40p in the pound top rate of income tax by Labour.

Dismissing criticism that cutting inheritance tax would help the rich, he said people who had bought their council houses were now being caught by it.