One year into his leadership, Michael Howard is running out of time to turn the polls around

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Indy Politics

"If only we could ban the opinion polls," one senior Tory sighed yesterday, as he contemplated the first anniversary today of Michael Howard becoming leader of the Conservative Party.

"If only we could ban the opinion polls," one senior Tory sighed yesterday, as he contemplated the first anniversary today of Michael Howard becoming leader of the Conservative Party.

The sentiment is widespread in his party. It is in much better shape than the divided rabble Mr Howard inherited when Iain Duncan Smith was ditched. Mr Howard has accomplished much of what he set out to achieve a year ago. He has united his party, started to boost its membership and finances, brought in more professional staff, produced a coherent policy programme from an incoherent one and, according to the party's private polls, eliminated the negatives that had stopped people voting for it.

But although Britain feels "let down" by Labour and the voters do not trust the Prime Minister, the opinion polls stubbornly refuse to move in the Opposition's favour. In some surveys, the Tories have even gone backwards since the dismal days of IDS. They insist that their own surveys are doing much better in the marginal seats that will decide the general election. But the published polls have cast a permanent shadow over Mr Howard's year, halting any bursts of progress in their tracks.

"If it were not for the polls, politics would look very different," one Howard ally said yesterday. A Tory frontbencher added: "We should be well ahead in the polls. The failure to gain momentum is depressing morale. People don't fear a Tory government any more. But they are hardly flocking to us."

With an election expected in six months' time, leading Tories fear time is running out. Allies of Mr Howard complain he was dealt a bad hand by IDS, and wish he had another 18 months to "sell" the policies on which they will fight. Their potential trump card - tax cuts - will almost certainly not be played until after Gordon Brown's Budget next spring to stop him stealing the Tories' joker.

Tory modernisers fear Mr Howard has missed a golden chance to transform the party, and are worried he is devoting too much energy to wooing the Tories' natural supporters rather than reaching out to others. "We are treading water - at best," one said. "We have got to make people sit up and take notice, but we have been too cautious. They have written us out of the script."

The Howard camp strongly denies pursuing a "core vote" strategy based on Europe, immigration and crime. Officials insist that crime and asylum are not "core vote" issues but concern many people, and promise that health and education will play a big role in the party's election campaign.

The Tories claim they "won" the June elections in local authorities, the Greater London Assembly and the European Parliament. But their party was spoilt by the surprise advance of the UK Independence Party in the Euro elections, which sent shivers down Tory spines. Poor performances in the Leicester South and Birmingham Hodge Hill by-elections were followed by a humiliating fourth place in Hartlepool.

The official excuse - that these contests did not take place in "natural territory" - did not fit well with Mr Howard's pledge to make the Tories a "party for all Britain and all Britons". His promises to lead it from the centre and to avoid "narrow opportunism" have also been questioned.

Modernisers echoed the Labour charge that Mr Howard lurched to the right after he recalled John Redwood to his Shadow Cabinet in September. And one of the modernisers he dropped, John Bercow, accused him of looking "opportunistic" over Iraq, fuelling Labour's central criticism that the Tory leader is an "opportunist". After backing the war, Mr Howard and his party have found it very difficult to exploit Mr Blair's problems on Iraq. There were alleged "flip-flops" when he supported the Butler inquiry into the pre-war intelligence, but then withdrew, saying he would not have backed the Commons motion authorising the conflict with the benefit of hindsight.

In his own eyes, the Tory leader's nadir came when he bombed during the Commons debate on the Butler report. Mr Blair went into it on the back foot, but came out on top. Mr Howard felt isolated in his own party, frustrated that many of his own MPs were unable to distinguish between the flawed intelligence on which Mr Blair misled the country and the war itself.

Tory strategists believe President Bush's re-election will keep Iraq in the headlines and the pressure on Mr Blair. But many Tory MPs fear there are simply "no votes" in Iraq for their party because the public know it supported the war.

What will Mr Howard do to improve his party's fortunes? The best answer is more of the same.

The missing piece of his policy answer is on tax cuts. He resisted pressure from some influential advisers to play the tax card at the party's Bournemouth conference in October. He was mindful of the Tories' focus groups, which showed that voters would not believe a promise of tax cuts, but would see it as a bribe.

To tackle this credibility gap - which reflects a much wider distrust of all politicians - the Tories have turned to David James, the business troubleshooter. He has already found billions of pounds of savings in Whitehall and will complete his audit by Christmas, creating the room for a tax cut pledge. What has not been decided is which taxes the Tories would reduce. Council tax and taking middle-income earners out of the top 40p rate of income tax are front-runners. A fierce debate has broken out over whether to cut inheritance tax; modernisers fear it would be seen as helping the rich, and want more help directed at the lower end of the income scale.

According to the Tories' polls, voters no longer think they would privatise or slash public services - a charge that Labour will repeat ad nauseam until the election. "The fear factor has gone," said one Tory strategist.

Mr Blair has adopted the Tories' language by offering "choice" in public services. Although the Tories are frustrated when Labour steals its policies, they insist Mr Blair's move has helped muddy the waters on health and education, as the voters now see the two main parties occupying the same ground.

Tory modernisers are not convinced. They fear the party remains vulnerable to the Labour charge that its voucher-style scheme would use taxpayers' money to subsidise people who opt for private health care, or send their children to low-fee private schools. "We should have killed this policy when we killed IDS," said one MP.

Highs ...

1 Winning the leadership without a divisive contest and uniting his party

2 His modernising leadership campaign speech at London's Saatchi Gallery, in which he pledged a party for "all Britain and all Britons"

3 Pushing Labour into third place in the local authority elections in June

4 The most successful Tory conference for years in October and a widely-admired speech

5 Seeing the threat of UKIP recede and millionaire businessman Paul Sykes (pictured) reject the party

... And Lows

1 His poor performance in the debate on Lord Butler's inquiry into the pre-war intelligence on Iraq

2 Being accused of a flip-flop on Iraq after saying he would not have voted for the war if he had known what he knows now

3 Rushing out the Tories' spending plans in February, which allowed Gordon Brown to trump them in his Budget

4 A messy reshuffle in September, in which he dropped the modernisers John Bercow, Damian Green and Julie Kirkbride and recalled John Redwood to the Shadow Cabinet

5 Coming fourth in the Hartlepool by-election in September

Views On...

Schools

'This grammar school boy is not going to take any lessons from that public schoolboy [Tony Blair] on the importance of children from less privileged backgrounds gaining access to university'

The 'British dream'

'I owe this country everything I have and everything I am'

The Iraq war

'I think it was right to go to war, but I also think it is right to tell the truth. In the run-up, Tony Blair didn't tell the truth. He did not behave as a British Prime Minister should.'

The BNP

'A bunch of thugs dressed up as a political party'

European constitution

'Countries have constitutions. We do not want to be part of a country called Europe'

Crime

'Many people believe they are no longer wholly responsible for their actions. It's someone else's, or something else's, fault: the environment, society, the Government'

Priorities

'People don't want a date with destiny. They just want a date with a dentist'

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