Faithful pepped up by his 'greatest hits'

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The Independent Online

Before Michael Howard spoke, the Tory faithful watched a video showing his greatest hits since he became their leader, with the best tunes from his speeches and his best lines from his weekly Commons contest with Tony Blair.

Then, the speech itself also turned out to be a compilation album of Mr Howard's four months as the Tories' number one. There was his "British dream" - again. There was another reminder of his roots as the child of immigrants. There was the moral case for tax cuts and there was the same story about a businessman engulfed by red tape.

Even his jokes had a touch of Top of the Pops about them. In 1997, he said, Labour's song was "Things can only get better", [by D:ream]. In 2001, it was "We've only just begun" (by the Carpenters). Next time, he predicted, it would be "Give Me Just a Little More Time" (by Chairman of the Board).

His 1,500 fans loved it. His standing ovation was genuine, a sharp contrast to the embarrassingly stage-managed one for poor old Iain Duncan Smith at the previous Tory conference last October in the dying days of his leadership.

IDS once assured the Tory conference "the Conservatives are back" but they never were under his leadership. Mr Howard said it yesterday and no one in the Harrogate hall doubted it. The party that seemed to have a death wish has sprung back to life. All weekend, I only spotted one delegate who had nodded off. There were even quite a few people under the age of 60.

The conference set, too, was designed for a new age. As well as the giant video screen, there were three huge stainless steel wheels, including one suspended above Mr Howard's head that looked like a hovering trampoline. It reminded me of the circus. I expected Michael Heseltine to swing across the stage at any moment. To give his full backing to Mr Howard, of course.

The Tory leader held the ring with ease in a confident speech. It didn't really matter that there was no new policy in it. He was giving his party a progress report, a platform for the battles ahead. And he served notice that they will be bloody.

Labour, he warned, would use "scare tactics" to frighten voters about the Tories' policies. Not that he was afraid of using strong language himself, labelling Gordon Brown "a tax and regulation junkie" and pronouncing Tony Blair "impotent" despite his huge majority.

Whereas IDS was "the quiet man", Mr Howard styled himself as "the angry man" ready to take on a government that has run out of steam. He will be making plenty of noise in the months ahead.

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