Howard hopes boyhood memories will banish 'nasty' image

Michael Howard will try to shake off his image as the Mr Nasty of politics with a self-reflective speech tomorrow, which will revisit his boyhood in Llanelli, in the hope of proving that there is not really "something of the night" about him after all.

The speech will be another attempt to banish an image that has dogged the Conservatives for years, summed up in Tony Blair's put-down of the Tory leader last month - "he should understand that being nasty is not the same as being effective".

Recent opinion surveys suggest that the public are beginning to think that Mr Howard is effective, in contrast to previous Tory leaders. An NOP poll in The Independent yesterday showed that 47 per cent of people think he is doing a "fairly good" or "very good" job.

But the Conservatives have yet to lose the tag of the "nasty party", as their own former chairman, Theresa May, described them.

Mr Howard's speech to a Policy Exchange meeting at the Bloomberg building in London tomorrow will try to convey the idea that the man who was once a feared and disliked home secretary is really a caring human being.

"It's going to be a personal speech. He's going to talk about his upbringing, his experience as a young man, his family's business, and how that led him to be a Conservative," an aide said. The speech is one of a series intended to establish in people's minds what the Conservative Party stands for.

Yesterday, Mr Howard attacked threats issued by the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, to "cap" the spending of local councils.

He told the Conservative Local Government Conference: "Local government in this country used to be the engine of innovation. Councils had the power to both succeed and fail. Nearly all the public services we now take for granted were invented locally.

"We want to start the journey back to what local government used to be."

Ironically, the powers that allow central government to force councils to limit how much they spend were introduced by the Tories 20 years ago, for use against high-spending Labour councils. Labour condemned this at the time as an attack on local democracy.

"Ministers are now threatening to cap councils the length and breadth of the country. In fact, they are threatening to cap more councils in one year than the last Conservative government in 18 years," Mr Howard added.

Later this week, Mr Howard will visit Berlin, where he is due to make what is billed as a major speech on Thursday, on the Tory attitude to Europe.

The following week, the shadow Chancellor, Oliver Letwin, will deliver a speech aiming to solve the apparent contradiction between Tory promises to spend generously on vital services such as health and education and to prevent taxes rising.

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