Howard embarks on 'long slog' after poll quells euphoria

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Indy Politics

Michael Howard, the Conservatives' leader-in-waiting, said yesterday that the party faced a "long hard slog" before it could turn round its flagging fortunes.

The shadow Chancellor was responding to a Mori poll in The Independent yesterday, which punctured the euphoria among Tory MPs over their decision to unite behind Mr Howard after they ousted Iain Duncan Smith last week.

The survey showed that the Tories had slipped back since Mr Howard emerged as Mr Duncan Smith's likely successor. It put Labour on 38 per cent, the Tories on 32 per cent, with the Liberal Democrats gaining ground on them on 25 per cent.

Although Tory officials suggested the drop in support was due to the infighting over whether Mr Duncan Smith should remain party leader, one Tory MP admitted: "This poll has brought us down to earth again. It's back to reality."

Asked to comment on the survey's "depressing" findings when he appeared on GMTV yesterday, Mr Howard said: "I'd prefer it to be different but we know we've got a long slog ahead of us. No one in the Conservative Party is under any illusions that it's going to be easy."

Later, on a visit to the mental health charity Sane in east London, he said: "We have got a great deal of work to do. We have got a long hard slog in front of us but I know we can actually make things better for the people of this country and the test ahead is to convince them of that. We have to show them we actually have policies that will make their lives better, that will make a difference."

Mr Howard conceded that he failed to win public support for his policies when he was Home Secretary in the 1990s under John Major, even though crime fell by 18 per cent. He said: "We didn't take people with us enough. I didn't succeed enough in persuading people that I was doing the right thing, that it would lead to those results, which is what people wanted."

He agreed with Michael Portillo's statement at the weekend that the Tories were "too white, middle aged and middle class" but insisted the party was now choosing more female and ethnic-minority candidates. "The whole party's learning. We know we have to represent that tremendously rich ethnic diversity which we have in this country now. The country has changed, people have to change," he said.

Mr Howard, who looks certain to be elected unopposed as Tory leader tomorrow, had another reminder of the uphill struggle facing him when Amanda Platell, the Tories' former head of news, resigned from the party over the ousting of Mr Duncan Smith.

Ms Platell, who worked under his predecessor William Hague, said the party "now so disgusts me I want nothing to do with it". Writing in the London Evening Standard, she said: "I can't vote for the Conservatives because they repel me."

Disaffected Tory voters did not share Tory MPs' confidence that they had done the right thing in ditching their leader and rallying behind Mr Howard. "They just think they are nasty and they [the voters] are right," she wrote.

"Watching a bunch of gutless wonders dragging down a newly elected leader, again, did to them what it did to me: it turned their stomachs.

"I thought I'd seen it all when I worked as William Hague's press chief but the attack on IDS took even my breath away."

LEADER-IN-WAITING CONTINUES SOFTLY, SOFTLY APPROACH

He spoke softly, but there was certainly no big stick. When Michael Howard visited a charity in London's deprived East End yesterday, the Tory leader-in-waiting was the very picture of political rehabilitation.

The day after launching a savage attack on Labour's high tax record, it was back to the cuddlier Howard model as he toured Sane, the mental health organisation.

Yet while some may be tempted to call him "Dr Jekyll and Mr Howard", Marjorie Wallace, the charity's founder, was clearly impressed with the shadow Chancellor's empathy and understanding.

Nodding sagely, asking questions about funding and statistics, yet smiling regularly to staff, Mr Howard was nevertheless keen to present a political message about the failures of the public sector.

"This is an outstanding example of the way in which a voluntary organisation can use volunteers to deliver a real service to help people in a way, quite frankly, that the National Health Service cannot do," he said. The 45-minute visit also allowed him to insist that the Conservatives, as well as himself, had changed in recent years.

"The problems that the country faces at the beginning of the 21st century are different to the problems 20 years ago," he said.

The visit was the latest stage of a carefully designed media strategy that went live as soon as it was revealed last Wednesday that Iain Duncan Smith had lost the confidence of Conservative MPs.

Mr Howard himself said this week that "there's always a case for the counter-intuitive" and it appears his campaign over the past few days was drawn up precisely to do that.

The launch at the Saatchi Gallery was intended to set a fresh, modern tone that avoided the worst excesses of Michael Portillo's failed campaign of 2001 while proving the party had moved on.

The theme of his speech, that he had learnt to "preach a bit less and listen a lot more", was echoed in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph and on the Today programme on Radio 4 on Monday.

But members of the Howard team are acutely aware that their man also has to ensure he does not throw away the party's strong messages on the economy.

As a result, two articles, one in the News of the World and one in the Daily Mail were aimed at reassuring core voters that low taxes are a still priority.

Monday's visit to a small printing firm in Romford, Essex, underlined the formidable reputation that Mr Howard has forged as shadow Chancellor.

Aides had planned a further photocall today, possibly meeting party chairman and workers, to keep up the media momentum.

But Mr Howard is likely to be tied up in several meetings all day in preparation for the new party and shadow cabinet arrangements.

The close of nominations at noon tomorrow will be the next big event and Central Office is likely to used as his backdrop.

Paul Waugh

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