The Week in Politics: Going gets tough on Howard's road to power

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When Michael Howard makes his first speech to a Conservative Party conference since becoming leader tomorrow, he will have plenty of reasons to be cheerful. In his four months at the helm, he has steadied a sinking ship and turned a divided rabble of a crew into a disciplined, united team who are now heading happily in the same direction.

The 1,500-strong attendance at the spring conference in Harrogate, the best for some years, shows how Mr Howard has revived the health of a party that was dying out. It now boasts 50,000 more members than Labour and the money is rolling in: an appeal by the Tory leader has raised £650,000 from 14,000 people.

And yet Mr Howard is too canny and experienced a politician to allow himself the luxury of celebrating such successes. It is a necessary start on the long road back to power, but no more than that, he believes. There is a long slog ahead and there was a reminder this week that his own honeymoon is over when the Tory MP Michael Mates refused to step down from the Butler inquiry into the intelligence gathered before the Iraq war, despite Mr Howard's decision to withdraw the Opposition's support. Such messy problems are the reality of political leadership. "For a while it looked as though Michael could walk on water," one Tory frontbencher told me. "But now we're all wading through the mud and it's hard graft."

Not that Mr Howard's achievements should be underestimated. Mr Mates notwithstanding, Tory MPs are remarkably disciplined and united. His brand of leadership is strong, decisive and based on what he privately calls "grown-up politics". What Mr Howard has not yet achieved - and what he now regards as his party's most urgent priority - is to tell the voters what the Tories would do. "Passports" or vouchers for health treatment, to help people with the cost of going private, were launched at the Harrogate conference a year ago but few voters know about them. Similar "passports" allowing parents to choose other state schools were also eclipsed by the party's perpetual leadership crisis under Iain Duncan Smith. Starting at the Harrogate conference today, there will be a big sales drive about the benefits of these policies which, incidentally, some ministers fear could prove popular despite dismissing them publicly.

Tory strategists believe they are moving with the grain of public opinion, taking comfort from opinion polls showing the party ahead of Labour on education, tax, law and order, immigration and asylum, and Europe, though Mr Howard fares less well in his personal battle with Tony Blair.

The Tory leader's sights are fixed firmly on 10 June, the date of the local government and European Parliament elections. His task is to persuade people who are fed up with Mr Blair to do more than merely stay at home. He needs to get them to vote Tory, to show that his party offers a real alternative at the general election.

Mr Howard was worried that the party's divisions over whether a Tory government should cut taxes would threaten its new-found unity. So he and Oliver Letwin resolved to set the issue aside until the end of this year, as the shadow Chancellor announced in the keynote speech last month in which he promised to increase spending on schools, hospitals and pensions but freeze other budgets to bring down the share of national income devoted to public spending from 42 per cent to 40 per cent.

The speech is still reverberating in Tory circles and there are some senior figures who believe it has caused more trouble than it was worth. In seeking to win the voters' trust on health and education, the Tories have left themselves vulnerable in other areas and ministers have begun to challenge their opposite numbers about the implications of freezing spending. Gordon Brown and his advisers are convinced the Tory strategy will help Labour to draw the dividing lines between the two main parties. According to Mr Brown's team, it will mean a cut in real terms of £18bn, including £1.5bn on defence, £669m at the Home Office and £570m on transport. One Blair strategist describes the Letwin speech as the Tories' "John Smith moment", a reference to the vote-losing shadow Budget he produced in 1992.

Lord Heseltine, the former deputy prime minister, believes an opposition should keep its powder dry, arguing that spelling out too much, too soon allows the governing party to steal its best clothes and shred the rest. Mr Howard is convinced his party will not make real headway until the public knows its key policies, and there is no time to lose with a general election probably 14 months away. In his heart of hearts, the Tory leader may agree with another dictum: governments lose elections and oppositions don't win them. To climb their electoral mountain in one go, the Tories will need Labour to make mistakes and, almost certainly, the economy to turn sour. But there is no doubt they are firmly back in the game. It is unlikely that Labour will lose next year, but it is no longer impossible.