Howard: Tories can win next election

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Indy Politics

Michael Howard marked his 100th day as Tory leader yesterday with a prediction that the party could win the general election expected next year.

He disclosed that the party had attracted 19,000 new members since he took over from Iain Duncan Smith and confirmed it would move into a new, modern heaquarters in April.

During a visit to Berlin, he also sought to heal the tensions over Europe that have bedevilled his predecessors by setting out his plans for a "constructive and agreeable relationship" with a "made-to-measure" European Union.

The Tory hierarchy has been buoyed by improving opinion poll ratings and a series of council by-election victories after Mr Howard's election as leader in November.

Reflecting the optimism, Mr Howard told reporters: "I think we have made a considerable amount of progress but we have got a long way to go and a great deal to do.

"I think we can win the election. It's for the British people to decide and I don't presume on their judgement."

Mr Howard said the party would be leaving its headquarters in Smith Square, Westminster, where it has been based since the 1950s, for open-plan offices above shops in Victoria Street after Easter.

"The recent history of Central Office has not been a happy one," he said. "There are too many ghosts. I want to move to somewhere more modern and more in tune with the changes we have to make." He added that the Tories were now "by far" Britain's biggest political party, with paid-up membership of about 320,000. It had received £650,000 from 14,500 donors since he became leader.

Mr Howard said there had been 55 local by-elections in the past 100 days, in which the Tories won 33 per cent of the vote, compared to the Liberal Democrats' 29 per cent and Labour's 24 per cent, representing a swing from Labour to the Tories of more than 4 per cent.

The Tory leader said he was determined to visit each of the party's key marginal seats at least once before the next election. He said the party had to present "a credible and convincing alternative to a failing and discredited Government" and prove it was "an alternative to which the country can turn with confidence".

He went on: "I think we already have more developed policies than any recent Opposition has had at a similar stage in the parliament."

Mr Howard also used his visit to Germany to distance himself from the hardline anti-European rhetoric often employed by his predecessor.

He pointed out that he had supported the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which was signed by John Major's government but opposed by Mr Duncan Smith.

He added: "I think there is a really exciting future for the European Union as a flexible body with an imaginative approach to working together.

"The rule at the moment is that when the EU decides there should be further integration in some particular area, everybody moves together and I'm saying that need not be the case. I want us to be a positive and influential member of the EU, without having to sign up to the integrationist agenda that some of our partners still have."