Norris condemns Howard's 'negative' summer offensive

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A senior Tory warned Michael Howard yesterday that he risked leading the party to another heavy election defeat because he had failed to carve out a different agenda to Labour.

A senior Tory warned Michael Howard yesterday that he risked leading the party to another heavy election defeat because he had failed to carve out a different agenda to Labour.

Steve Norris, a leading moderniser who came second in the election for Mayor of London in June, voiced growing concerns in Tory ranks that the party's "summer offensive" had failed to make any impact on voters. Some Tories are worried that Mr Howard's message seems to be aimed at Tory supporters rather than voters who have deserted the party.

Critics of the Tory leadership say the party appeared "negative" when they highlighted their opposition to political correctness, the Human Rights Act and Whitehall waste without saying what they stood for.

Breaking ranks for the first time since Mr Howard became Tory leader, Mr Norris said: "They [the Tories] have certainly been busy. But being busy and making progress are not the same thing."

He told BBC Radio 4: "Some of the policies have hit the spot, most have been perfectly sensible but very few, if any, have caught the public imagination. Now I believe he's got to be told, 'Michael, unless there's quite a change in the way you approach the whole business of opposition there's a real risk all you are going to do is get us closer. And that's not close enough.'"

Mr Norris called on the Tories to outline "distinctive" policies that they could follow through and were not already being implemented by Labour. "Frankly, I don't see any of that yet," he said.

Despite the criticism, the Tory leadership will extend its attack on political correctness today when Oliver Letwin, the shadow Chancellor, will warn that the obsession with minimising risk is turning Britain into a cowardly rather than courageous society.

He will tell the Centre for Policy Studies in London that "compulsive caution" is spreading through schools, hospitals, police forces and society as a whole. He will cite as examples charity pancake races being banned, voluntary work restricted, school trips abandoned and businesses not coming forward with new ideas.

"The current state of the Diana fountain serves as a stark warning," Mr Letwin will argue. "Just as we have removed the water from that fountain, if the state seeks to remove every risk, it will end by removing all the bubbling dynamism of which society is capable. If the state seeks to remove every risk, then in place of that bubbling dynamism, we will have a dried-out, lifeless reminder of what might have been."

Mr Howard's allies are convinced his approach will pay dividends in the long term as the Tory criticisms strike a chord with many voters. They say the summer offensive will be followed by meaty policy announcements at the party's annual conference next month.

Yesterday an unrepentant Mr Howard described the problem of hospital infections as the new "British disease". On a tour of key seats in Kent, he attacked the Government's "half-hearted" response to the MRSA hospital superbug. "The next Conservative government will therefore make ridding our hospitals of the superbug a priority. Patients deserve, and patients will get, clean and safe hospitals," he said.

Ian McCartney, the Labour Party chairman, said: "Thinking Tories are waking up to the fact that Michael Howard has not made the fundamental changes to the Conservative Party he needed to have made. Instead he has pushed his party to the right and pursued an extreme agenda of cuts, charges and privatisation."