Polls: voters don't trust Tories either

Party members are hailing a bold, competent leader at last, but the wider electorate is unimpressed
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Indy Politics

Michael Howard will be greeted with rapture today at the Conservative spring conference by activists basking in relief that they have a competent leader strong enough to hold the party together.

Praise for Mr Howard's leadership has come not just from the usual loyalists, but also from some of those who were harshest about his predecessor. Derek Conway, one of the principal organisers of the coup against Iain Duncan Smith, remarked: "We can look people in the face now and say we have an alternative prime minister without people falling about laughing."

But in-depth polling suggests that what Mr Howard has achieved is to recover the position the Tories were in before 2001, under William Hague - who was also a powerful parliamentary performer.

When questioned in detail, people acknowledge that the Conservatives are now as competent as Labour or the Liberal Democrats, from having been far behind. But when they are asked, for instance, which political party most closely shares their values, there is no sign of improvement for the Conservatives.

There is a huge number of electors who profess to be dissatisfied with the Government but intend to vote Labour nonetheless because they do not trust the Tories. Michael Howard's style of leadership may actually be reinforcing that mistrust rather than curing it.

Mr Howard's harshest critics would agree that he is one of the cleverest tacticians in the business, with a lawyer's ability to spot his opponent's weakness and play on it. Seeing that Tony Blair is battling with a crisis over public trust and divisions within his party, Mr Howard has done everything to exacerbate both - but at a price.

Last week, he opened himself to the charge of being a political opportunist when he withdrew his party's support for Lord Butler's inquiry into the origin of the Iraq war.

When the inquiry was launched in February, Mr Howard made a virtue of having negotiated terms that enabled the Conservatives to take part in it, and he ridiculed the boycott by the Liberal Democrats. Four weeks later, the terms were suddenly not good enough.

When Mr Blair and David Blunkett proposed to deny the families of failed asylum-seekers the right to claim benefits, Mr Howard rightly saw that it would create trouble with the Labour left and attacked the proposal for going "further than any civilised government should go".

But in a speech in Burnley last month, he promised that the Tories would be harder on asylum-seekers than the Government. It is still Tory policy to send asylum-seekers to an island "far, far away".

When he was Shadow Foreign Secretary under William Hague, Mr Howard pushed hard for Eastern European states to be admitted to the EU. He accused member states of "spreading myths and stereotypes" to delay their admission and Britain of wanting to "go with the flow". Last month, Mr Howard launched a campaign against the Government for not following the example set by most other EU states in introducing restrictions to discourage immigration from the new member states.

Andrew Cooper of the polling company Populus, who served as a high-ranking party official in the 1990s, warned: "It's all too clever by half. What we have had is a series of unconnected tactical manoeuvres. But when you take a step back and look at the totality of it, what does it add up to?"

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