Labour labels Howard 'a serial opportunist'

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Labour branded Michael Howard a "serial opportunist" who jumps on every passing bandwagon as it tried to derail his pre-election campaign on a range of populist issues.

Labour branded Michael Howard a "serial opportunist" who jumps on every passing bandwagon as it tried to derail his pre-election campaign on a range of populist issues.

Ministers questioned the judgement of the Tory leader as they fought back against a series of successful "guerrilla attacks" by the Opposition on issues including immigration, crime, pensioners' council tax bills and the case of Margaret Dixon, the woman whose shoulder operation was cancelled several times. The decision to "get personal" with Mr Howard came after he put the Government on the defensive over Gypsy sites in his party's latest offensive.

Alan Milburn, Labour's campaign co-ordinator, said: "Leadership is not about riding shotgun on the latest bandwagon to roll into town. It's not about exploiting issues, it's about dealing with them."

Labour intends to contrast Mr Howard's "opportunism" and "flip-flopping" with Mr Blair in the hope that even those voters disaffected with the Prime Minister will respect him as someone who sticks to his guns.

Mr Milburn was confident the public would see through the Tories' strategy because, he said, they avoided talking about the "big issues" such as economic stability, jobs, child care and public services. "It is the difference between government and opposition and leadership and opportunism," he said.

"That is the difference, I believe, between Tony Blair and Michael Howard, between Labour and Conservative."

Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, said Mr Howard's campaign showed no vision for Britain. "It's not just opportunistic, it's nasty," she said. "Add to this his flip-flops on Iraq and Northern Ireland, his opportunism on terrorism, his role in the poll tax, 15 per cent interest rates, soaring inflation, three million unemployed and his commitment to £35bn of cuts and a clear picture emerges of someone unfit to lead our country, someone whose opportunism would present a risk to this country."

Kevin McNamara, a Labour MP, infuriated the Tories by accusing them of acting like the Nazis over Gypsies. "I really do feel there is the whiff of the gas chambers about this," he said. Gypsies were "an easy target to attack, to blame all sorts of difficulties on - to appeal to people's basest motives".

Caroline Spelman, the Tories' local government spokesman, denounced his comments as "very inflammatory".

Mr Howard set out seven points for tackling illegal traveller camp sites, including making trespass a criminal offence for the first time, and giving local authorities the power, retrospectively, to reject planning permission for traveller camps.

But the Tories risked a diplomatic row after claiming the problem had been "exported" from Ireland. Mrs Spelman said the Irish government had introduced a similar law to make trespass a criminal offence, adding: "That has exported the problem here."

A spokesman for the environment ministry in Dublin rejected her claims. "We reject the idea that we have exported travellers. People can move freely. We are all in the EU so we reject that comment."

The Irish government also made plain that its legislation - which has to be adopted by local councils in Ireland by the end of March - differs significantly from the Tory policy.

The Irish government measure makes trespass a criminal offence but it also imposes requirements on local authorities to consult with travellers and adopt a five-year plan to meet their needs in their areas. It also requires planning authorities to include traveller accommodation in their development plans.

An opinion poll published today suggests that the Budget may have stemmed the Tories' recent advance, despite their high media profile. The ICM survey for The Guardian puts Labour eight points ahead on 40 per cent, its highest rating since December and up three points on last month, the Tories on 32 per cent ( down two points) and the Liberal Democrats on 20 per cent (down one). That would give Labour a majority of 146 on a uniform swing.

Gordon Brown's package was a net vote winner, with 20 per cent of all voters saying they were more likely to vote Labour against 14 per cent who said it had put them off. Some 30 per cent of pensioners, a crucial electoral group, said they were more likely to vote Labour as a result of the Budget after the Chancellor targeted the "grey vote".

Mr Howard, the son of Jewish immigrants from Romania, insisted his plans were not racist, dismissing claims that he was appealing to bigotry as no more than "vulgar abuse".

After a visit to Billericay, Essex, to talk to residents affected by a site that is home to about 1,000 travellers, he told a press conference: "People claim it's racist to raise this issue. It is not. It has nothing to do with race. It's about standing up for the right values. It's about common sense. And it's about making sure people abide by the law."

The Tory attack follows cases in which travellers and Gypsies have moved on to sites, illegally installed facilities such as hardstanding, electricity and water supplies, then applied for planning permission.

Mr Howard said travellers wanting to live on caravan sites should apply for planning permission the same way as anyone else. "I don't believe in special rules for special interest groups," he said.

"I believe different people from different communities should be free to lead their lives in different ways. But freedom comes with a responsibility. Many travellers accept this, living happily. Sadly, a small minority of travellers do not. "

But Keith Hill, the planning minister, said: "We have heard plenty from the Conservatives about penalising Gypsies and travellers but nothing, not a single positive and constructive suggestion, to deal with the fundamental issue, which is the lack of available sites."

John Bowers, page 39