Howard targets EU red tape in drive to cut Labour lead

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Indy Politics

Michael Howard will launch the Tory European election campaign today with senior party figures worried about the Tories' failure to cut Labour's five-point lead in recent opinion polls.

One leading member of the Howard election team said: "We are baffled by the polls. Blair is under fire on all sides, but they do not reflect what we believe is happening on the ground."

Tony Blair accused the Tories yesterday of seeking to take Britain out of the European Union. In the Commons, he revived claims that 30 of Mr Howard's frontbench team supported Britain's withdrawal from the EU.

He will use the European elections to attempt to restore some faith in his leadership after the cabinet backlash against his handling of the U-turn on the European referendum. One minister close to Mr Blair said: "Tony has shot two Tory foxes for these elections: the European referendum and immigration."

Mr Howard rejected Mr Blair's claims, saying they were outdated and that a Eurosceptic organisation to which the 30 frontbenchers belonged had been disbanded by Iain Duncan Smith, his predecessor.

Guy Black, the head of communications at the Conservative Party, denied Labour allegations that the Tories would run a negative campaign. "We will be setting out a positive vision for Europe," he said.

The Tory manifesto, to be unveiled today in Manchester by Mr Howard, will set out Conservative demands for a "more flexible" Europe, said Mr Black.

Mr Howard will announce that the Tories would seek "sunset clauses" in new EU regulations to erase them when they had lapsed. He will say the Conservatives want a reduction of at least 25 per cent in the 80,000 pages of regulations in the EU.

Michael Ancram, the shadow Foreign Secretary, who will accompany Mr Howard on a tour taking in Manchester, Edinburgh and Cardiff in one day, said: "It is time for the EU to confront its failings."

The Conservatives promised that Mr Howard would fight an "energetic" campaign taking him out of London for most of the week except on Wednesdays when he will return for Prime Minister's questions. The parties are contesting 78 seats, down from 87 because of reallocations following the enlargement of the EU. The Tories hold the largest number with 36 seats compared with Labour's 28. The Liberal Democrats have 11.

Liam Fox, a co-chairman of the Conservative Party, has ordered party workers to shake up the Tories' moribund election machinery. He recently organised a trial in Reading where party workers issued 40,000 leaflets in one weekend.

The opening shots for the campaign were fired on Tuesday, when Mr Howard unveiled posters depicting a wilted rose with the slogan "Let Down By Labour". That campaign, designed by Mr Fox, Maurice Saatchi, his co-chairman, and Will Harris, the Conservative marketing director, will run until the general election.

A party strategist said: "It is not like the famous Saatchi poster from 1979, 'Labour Isn't Working'. That was an outcome message. This is an emotional message which we believe will echo what people are genuinely thinking."