'I want to give a tiny bit back - for what Britain has given me'

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Michael Howard rallied the Conservative Party conference yesterday with a highly personal statement of his values and beliefs, saying he owed everything he had to Britain and wanted to give "a tiny bit back".

Michael Howard rallied the Conservative Party conference yesterday with a highly personal statement of his values and beliefs, saying he owed everything he had to Britain and wanted to give "a tiny bit back".

In what allies described as his "mission statement", the Tory leader tried to project a clearer image to voters by explaining how his life story shaped his desire to serve Britain.

The son of Romanian Jewish immigrants, born two weeks after Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, Mr Howard closed his speech powerfully by describing how his grandmother was killed in the Nazi concentration camps. "If it hadn't been for Winston Churchill, and if it hadn't been for Britain, I would have been one of them too," he said.

"I owe my life to Britain. My father said to me, 'This is the best country in the world', and I think it was. And I think it still is. But I know it could be doing so much better. And it's because I think I can help make things better that I am standing before you today. Put simply, I want to give just a tiny bit back in return for what Britain had given to me."

The Tory leader said Britain "shouldn't flinch" if the threat to its freedom required military action but tried to capitalise on Tony Blair's problems over Iraq. "I believe it was right to go to war. That's a controversial view, I know. Many people would prefer me to say something else.

"The world is a better place without Saddam Hussein. Saddam had provoked two wars in the Gulf. He had used chemical weapons against other nations and against his own people. No one knew if and when he would get his hands on more weapons of mass destruction. So I think it was right to go to war.

"But I also think that it's right to tell the truth. In the run-up to the war, Tony Blair did not tell the truth. He did not give a truthful account of the intelligence he received. He did not behave as a British Prime Minister should.

"Tony Blair has said mistakes were made. He has said he accepts responsibility. But it is not a question of responsibility. It is a question of credibility. I hope that we will not face another war. But the world is a very dangerous place, and you can never be sure.What if this Prime Minister asks people to trust him again? Could the British people trust him a second time?"

Although the policies he highlighted in his speech were aimed at the Tories' natural supporters rather than floating voters, Mr Howard tried to soften his own "harsh" image among people who remember him as a hardline home secretary with "something of the night about him", as Ann Widdecombe memorably declared.

He said: "What people want from their politicians is accountability, responsibility and a little humility. The very opposite of what we've had from Tony Blair. Politicians don't have all the solutions. They should stop pretending they do. So I won't pretend I can solve every problem, right every wrong or cure every ill. We will only promise what we can deliver."

His recurring theme was that the Tories would restore people's trust in politicians by issuing a "timetable for action" that would enable the voters to hold the Government to account. He admitted that the Tory administration in which he served from 1992-97 broke its promise to cut taxes year on year, but added that Labour had imposed 66 tax rises since.

Mr Howard said the Tories' timetable, giving specific times and dates for implementing its manifesto, would put them "on the line in a way that no government has ever been before." He added: "There will be no wiggle room. Every one will be able to hold us to account. No dodgy facts and figures. We'll have no place to hide."

Pledging to sack ministers who failed to deliver the party's promises, he said: "People are fed up with talk. They want action." While Mr Blair spoke about the euro being our destiny, Mr Howard said that "most people don't want a date with destiny; they just want a date with a dentist."

He announced that on "day one", his Government would scrap the forms police had to fill in every time they stopped someone. In week one, it would abolish Labour's early release scheme, saying 3,600 crimes had been committed by prisoners who had been let out of jail early. Within a month, the Tories would start to recruit 5,000 more police officers each year. And as Prime Minister, he would close the progress-chasing Delivery Unit which was set up by Mr Blair in his first week in Downing Street.

Promising to give families "the chance to win back their children from drugs," Mr Howard said the Tories would increase the number of places on drug rehabilitation schemes from 2,000 to 20,000.

The Tories would review, and possibly scrap, the Human Rights Act and would in their first week in power begin to pull out of the 1951 United Nations convention on refugees. "We cannot allow unlimited immigration to continue. We need a government that gets a grip on this shambles," he said.

He reiterated the Tories' pledge to raise the basic state pension by £7 a week for a single person and £12 for a couple. "It's a scandal that this Government took the best pensions system in Europe and turned it into one of the worst," he said.

Mr Howard lavished praise on Britain's dedicated public servants, singling out doctors, nurses and teachers, and promising that the Tories would set them free to use their judgement, experience and expertise. He said: "Conservatives will give everyone the kind of choice in health and education that today only money can buy. That's what I call social justice."

He advised party workers to reply with just 10 words when voters asked why they should vote Tory: "School discipline. More police. Cleaner hospitals. Lower taxes. Controlled immigration."

THE VIEW FROM THE FLOOR

Rob Kendrick, from Lincoln

"It was a measured, sound speech. I work in the NHS and he touched a chord on that subject; there is a lot that has gone wrong and disappointment with the Government among my colleagues."

Basia Martin, from Bristol

"It was a superb speech which reduced people to tears. It was sincere, focusing on not making false promises and telling it how it is. He wants to give something back to the country in public service."

David Nicholls, from Clapham, London

"I thought Michael Howard struck exactly the right note. He talked about things the party is interested in but also issues for the wider electorate. He is one of the best speakers in the party."

Debi Jones, from Crosby

"It was a very buoyant speech which was very well received. It was a very statesmanlike speech. He played it absolutely right. This is the finest speech I have heard any Tory leader give."

Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, from Battersea

"I thought it was a very professional and warm. It was a lot better than Iain Duncan Smith, but I am not sure it will change the view of the swing voter or the Labour supporter."

Gill Downing, from Harwich

"I thought it was a very good speech. It was gripping and it was the most encouraging speech for years. It seemed from the heart and it did touch you. He looked like a prime minister in waiting."

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