Howard takes Tory crown with 'hard slog' warning

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The new Tory leader Michael Howard today warned his party it faced a "hard slog" if it was to snatch victory in the next general election.

In his first act after he was confirmed as leader, Mr Howard appealed to Conservative MPs for unity to give him the best possible chance of replacing Tony Blair as Prime Minister.

Mr Howard was named as successor to the ousted Iain Duncan Smith today after no other contender came forward to challenge him by the noon deadline.

Addressing MPs and peers immediately after his "coronation", he said: "We are here to win.

"Because if we don't win we cannot put into practice the things we believe in for the good of our country. If we don't win we can achieve nothing – and we will be letting so many people down.

"And if we are to win, we must work together as a team."

Mr Howard said the Tories had a great opportunity to win the next election, as Labour and Mr Blair had lost the voters' trust.

But he warned: "Of course it will be tough, uphill work. The hard slog is only just beginning. As I said last week, we need stamina and comradeship and total commitment. Whether we win lies with us."

Mr Howard's elevation to the leadership, announced by the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee Sir Michael Spicer, was expected to be put to the party's rank–and–file membership for ratification.

Tories were hopeful that the smooth transition from the leadership of Mr Duncan Smith – unseated by an MPs' vote of confidence last week – will give the party a boost in the polls by burying memories of recent infighting.

Labour's John Reid said Mr Howard was a "throwback" to the administrations of Margaret Thatcher and John Major who would remind voters of the worst aspects of Conservative rule.

Branding the new leader "Mr Poll Tax, a man associated with 1 million people in dole queues", Dr Reid told Sky News: "The party now has a leader who represents the unfairness and extremity of the Conservative Party itself."

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said: "I do not think his confirmation makes a great deal of difference to the Tory Party, or to British politics.

"It will probably shore up the core Conservative vote, but he may not be able to extend their appeal beyond that."

Senior Tories immediately pledged their loyalty to their new leader.

In a statement, chairman Theresa May said: "I am delighted to pledge my full support for the leader of the Conservative Party, Michael Howard.

"Michael has successfully united the party behind him and has shown his clear intention to bring all parts of the party together to continue the work of shaping a party for the 21st century and ensuring that the Conservative Party is the credible alternative to this damaging Labour Government.

"I look forward to working with Michael and doing all I can to ensure that this party is ready to win the next general election."