Howard's failure to hit home plunges Tories into despair

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Senior Tory MPs questioned Michael Howard's judgement last night after his failure to deliver a knockout blow to Tony Blair in the Iraq debate.

Senior Tory MPs questioned Michael Howard's judgement last night after his failure to deliver a knockout blow to Tony Blair in the Iraq debate.

One Conservative shadow minister said: "It's all over."

Amid signs of a Tory "wobble" after the failure to make a breakthrough in the opinion polls, The Independent has learned that Mr Howard has told senior colleagues that he does not intend to change his line of attack.

He told a private dinner with key lieutenants on the eve of the Iraq debate that he would not change his leadership strategy to fight the coming election on the centre ground.

"He was very determined not to change course," said one shadow minister who was there. "He said we have to stick with the strategy that he has set out. He said we have to play it long. He said we have to keep banging on about the public services, health and education, because we have to widen our appeal."

Frontbench Conservative MPs said, after the Tories abject third place in both by-elections last week, that they expect the pressure to mount on Mr Howard to swing to the right by focusing on law and order, asylum, opposition to the EU, and tax cuts.

Lord Tebbit, Lady Thatcher's former party chairman, launch- ed the first attack at the weekend, describing Mr Howard's leadership as "colourless'' and destined for defeat at the next general election, unless he changed course.

Mr Howard is being urged by moderate Conservatives not to make the same mistake as William Hague, who swung to the right before the 2001 election and still failed.

Conservative MPs made it clear that there is no stomach on the Tory benches for another leadership challenge to replace Mr Howard.

One senior Conservative frontbencher said: "It is a case of KBO as Churchill said - Keep Buggering On."

There was widespread criticism of Mr Howard for giving an interview to The Sunday Times at the weekend in which he said that if he had known in March 2003, what he now knows from the Butler report, he could not have voted for war.

However, he said he still believed the war was justified, which opened him to the inevitable charge of "opportunism" from Labour MPs.

In yesterday's Commons debate, Mr Howard's attack on Mr Blair was thrown off course by repeated interventions by Labour MPs. At one point, there were nine Labour MPs standing up to intervene in his speech.

Mr Howard said: "It is now clear that in many ways the intelligence services got it wrong. But their assessments included serious caveats, qualifications and cautions.

"When presenting his case to the country, the Prime Minister chose to leave out those caveats, qualifications and cautions. As a result, the country was given a misleading impression of what the intelligence services had said. That is why the Prime Minister's credibility is at stake today."

But it was a question from the respected Tory MP Sir Patrick Cormack, sitting behind Mr Howard, which caused him most difficulty. Sir Patrick asked whether he was saying the country was deceived. Mr Howard said he had asked Mr Blair why he had said there was no doubt about the intelligence that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. "I want to know before I answer your question," said Mr Howard.

One Tory MP said later: "It was not his best day at the office. It was too lawyerly."

The Tory MPs went on to sink their sorrows at a party at the Conservative Party Headquarters last night to mark their departure on Friday from Smith Square, the scene of three successive election victories by Lady Thatcher, for offices above a coffee shop in Victoria Street.

Mr Howard, who attended the party accompanied by his wife, Sandra, appeared satisfied with his performance. But senior officials were also dismayed at the way his attack on Mr Blair was blunted. "He had to tackle the issue of The Sunday Times interview. There was no way round it," said one senior party official.

Central Office insiders were privately saying Mr Howard's performance was "not his best" and claimed it was "difficult to make capital against Blair".

It was also noted ominously that Malcolm Rifkind, the former Foreign Secretary, who was selected to fight the Kensington and Chelsea seat after the departure at the next election of Michael Portillo, comfortably eclipsed Mr Howard when he appeared on Channel Four News last night. "Rifkind is a class act," said one admiring Tory official.

Lord Parkinson, the former party chairman, who masterminded Lady Thatcher's first election victory, said Mr Howard would have to "soldier on". The important thing, Lord Parkinson told guests, was they should not panic at the failure to overtake Labour in the opinion polls.

Party strategists said that nearer the election, the Tories will use the "tax bombshell'' attack on Labour. However, there is growing concern inside the Tory leadership that the voters have become docile because of the buoyant economy.