Sun shines on Howard as he basks in Gibraltar's avid support

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Indy Politics

Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, was in seventh heaven yesterday in Main Street, Gibraltar.

Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, was in seventh heaven yesterday in Main Street, Gibraltar.

Strolling down the central shopping street in shirtsleeves, he was greeted by spontaneous applause from cheering supporters, promising him their vote on polling day.

Mr Howard would win a landslide in the general election if the reaction he received in Main Street, on the Rock could be replicated in mainland Britain.

The Rock will become a corner of England in the European elections on June 10. The 21,000 voters have won their right to be counted into the elections in the south west region of England and nearly all of them on yesterday's evidence will be voting Conservative.

Outside the Marks & Spencer store (Gibraltar branch) Ms Francis Lopez told him: "You can count on my vote. Gibraltar will be British until the return of Jesus Christ as the King of Kings.''

Beaming, Mr Howard moved from shop to shop, pulling votes like ripe apples in an orchard. The 300 years of British rule has made them fiercely loyal to the Crown and suspicious of the Dons.

In John Mackintosh Square, a busker, Paul, was playing "Rule Britannia'' on harmonica and guitar.

Mr Howard stopped for a photo-call. "He gave me a few coins,'' said the busker. "Who is he, Frankie Howerd?''

They celebrate the 300th anniversary of British rule in August and some of the locals see it as an affront that only the Princess Royal, in their eyes a minor royal, will be coming to the event, which they suspect is to avoid upsetting the Spanish.

Outside the Milk and Honey snackbar, Cynthia Eagle, 38, a civil servant told him: "Of course, I am voting Conservative. We have to find our friends wherever we can.''

In the square, Mr Howard climbed onto a soapbox to assure bemused shoppers and day-trippers that the Conservatives would not sell out their sovereignty. The local branch of VOGG (the Voice Of Gibraltar Group) had put up signs saying: "Blair must go''. News of the Loch Fynne plot by John Prescott and Gordon Brown to ditch Mr Blair had already reached Main Street.

A taxi man, John Charles Guy, promised Mr Howard his vote and said: "I hope that Tony Blair doesn't resign - I want to see him kicked out.''

The number of voters puts the Rock on a par with Truro but Mr Howard travelled to the tip of Spain to campaign for the day to underline his resistance to compromise over British assets in Europe. It was overcast, but the sun was shining on Mr Howard all day.

Peter Caruana, the chief minister of Gibraltar, abandoned protocol to tell a press conference he was voting Conservative. "It is not for the government of Gibraltar formally to endorse one party or another,'' he said. "The electorate will vote for the party they think has best protected whatever they hold dear, and that is what I shall be doing personally.''

The only cloud on Mr Howard's horizon came when a reporter from Spanish television asked him through an interpreter about the brutality of British soldiers in Iraq.

''The accusations are being investigated thoroughly,'' Mr Howard assured her. "That is the way we do things in Britain.''

The Socialist government in Spain, which was swept to victory on a wave of revulsion at the Aznar government's handling of the Madrid bombings, is just as hostile to Britain retaining the Rock as its predecessor.

In private, Mr Caruana complained to Mr Howard that the Spanish are blocking mobile telephone calls and stopping cruise ships from docking in Spain after Gibraltar.

Mr Caruana organised the referendum in 2002 which produced the 99 per cent no vote against joint sovereignty with Spain. Another vote is not expected for at least 30 years, but Gibraltarians, like Unionists in Ulster, think in centuries and say this is not long enough.

Mr Howard is thinking of ways within the parliamentary rules of presenting Mr Blair with some oysters at Prime Minister's questions tomorrow (Wednesday). "The thing that disturbs me,'' he said, "is that the in-fighting that is taking place at the highest levels of the Labour Party and the extent to which John Prescott has acknowledged that people are positioning themselves for what might happen after that, means that the interests of the country are coming a poor second.'' The Tories sent Mr Howard's battle bus to Gibraltar with the message "Putting Britain First''.

On Thursday, the Tory leader will go to Tony Blair's back yard for a speech over lunch in Sedgefield. He could not say whether oysters will be on the menu.