Howard tells voters he will rebuild trust

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Indy Politics

Michael Howard yesterday appealed to Labour and Liberal Democrat voters disillusioned by Tony Blair's two terms in office to return to the Tory fold with a promise that he would rebuild trust with the British electorate. In an upbeat ending to the Conservatives' annual conference in Bournemouth, the Tory leader said ordinary voters now wanted "a government which is honest - a government they can trust".

Claiming that the election was "there to be won", Mr Howard told his conference: "We're ready. We're going to be straight with people. Sometimes we'll be attacked for doing that. The truth is not always comfortable. Only by being honest can we hope to win people's trust."

He reached out beyond the message to core Tory voters which he delivered in his keynote address on Tuesday, saying: "To those who voted Labour last time, who dream of a better life, who work hard but feel let down, I say come and join us.

"To those who voted Liberal Democrat last time, who have lost faith in a criminal justice system with twisted priorities, who yearn for a time when children can walk home safely from school, I say come and join us.

"And to those who have given up on politics, who do not believe that casting a vote will ever make any difference to their lives, I say come and join us."

In interviews before the closing ceremony, Mr Howard said the Tories were leaving their conference "in good heart", but he admitted that when they arrived, the mood in the party was "not brilliant" after the Tories were beaten into fourth place by UKIP last week in the Hartlepool by-election.

Tory supporters made it clear they wanted a more Eurosceptic message from Mr Howard when they packed a UKIP fringe meeting on Wednesday.

Mr Howard will face growing pressure within his party to answer UKIP by committing the Conservatives to pull Britain out of the EU if they fail to renegotiate the treaties on the social chapter and fisheries, from which they have promised to withdraw.

Mr Howard also warned supporters of UKIP that a vote for anyone but the Tories would make it more likely that Britain would sign up to the European constitution and join the euro.

Asked in a question-and-answer session at the conference with Michael Brunson, the former ITN political editor, whether he would quit as leader if he became a liability to his party, Mr Howard said: "Absolutely - no ifs, no buts ..."

When Mr Brunson demanded: "Is losing the next election a liability?" the Opposition leader answered: "Everyone in this hall is focused on winning the next election. No alternative to that crosses our minds."

Asked if he was the "party's problem", Mr Howard respond-ed to loud applause: "I don't think I see it like that and I don't think most people in this hall would see it like that." He refused to mention Mr Blair by name in his conference speech, adhering to the strategy adopted for the conference to present positive messages about policy rather than a negative image attacking the Government.

The Conservative leader made trust a defining issue for the general election, but refused to repeat the attack he made last week on Mr Blair's integrity over the Iraq war, in spite of the Iraq Survey Group report confirming Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction.

Mr Howard said: "I still think that going to war was the right thing to do. Although I have my differences with the Prime Minister - I think there should have been a plan before we went to war and I don't think he has told the truth about the intelligence he received - I still think it was the right thing to do."

He left some of his own Shadow Cabinet ministers frustrated at his refusal to allow more explicit tax cuts to be offered this week to Middle England voters.

"We can only promise what we can deliver," he told his conference. "It would be the easiest thing in the world for us to say 'we will promise you tax cuts'. But unless we can show exactly where the money is coming from, how we are going to finance our pubic services and offer tax cuts, nobody would believe us."

Mr Howard said that the party had specified "very clearly" what it would do and when. He continued: "It will make a big difference to have a government that is really, truly accountable to the people of our country. A government which has spelt out in such stark simplicity what it intends to do that everybody will be able to see whether we are keeping to our policies."

Policies on education, health, crime and tax would make a "huge difference", as would moves to bring powers back from Brussels, he said. Making sure that more of the decisions that affected the lives of British people were made in Britain would be in the interests of the British people, he said.

Mr Howard said that Tory supporters would leave Bourne-mouth armed with a "timetable for action" on Conservative policies.

Mr Brunson asked whether it was true that Tim Collins, the shadow Education Secretary, had pledged to cut two-thirds of backroom education staff immediately on taking office.

"I haven't looked at what the plans in detail are for the Department of Education and Skills, so I don't know how long it'll take Tim to do that."

Mr Collins later renewed his commitment to cut backroom education staff. "On the first day, I will call in the Permanent Secretary, I will tell him that is what he has to do," he said.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's The World at One, Mr Collins added: "There is a difference between issuing an instruction in one day and expecting the instruction to be fully implemented in one day."

Mr Collins said on the very first day of a Tory government "things will be different".