The Week in Politics: Howard may not be cuddly but he is a contender

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The Independent Online

In Michael Howard's office at Westminster, there is a pile of letters 2ft high. More than 1,000 a day are arriving and his staff cannot cope. The letters are about Margaret Dixon, the woman whose shoulder operation was cancelled several times.

In Michael Howard's office at Westminster, there is a pile of letters 2ft high. More than 1,000 a day are arriving and his staff cannot cope. The letters are about Margaret Dixon, the woman whose shoulder operation was cancelled several times.

Most letters say the Tory leader was right to put Mrs Dixon's case in the spotlight. Many, inevitably, are from people asking him to take up their own problems as they wait for NHS treatment.

So Mr Howard will not be short of examples when he next wants to raise an individual case. Although it is a high-risk strategy, he will continue to highlight "real people" but will choose them with care.

The Dixon affair has given his party a desperately needed shot in the arm and its best media bull's-eye for years. Most regional broadcasters and local newspapers did their own version of the story; it was not hard to find cancelled operations.

Labour claims the Tories are exploiting people. Michael Howard's bulging mailbag tells him otherwise. Perhaps he has found an antidote to the "masochism strategy" under which Tony Blair allows ordinary people to give him a kicking.

Mr Howard knows the voters will never regard him as loveable and cuddly. But he hopes they might view him as someone who knows what he believes and would do what he says, "a pretty straight kind of guy", as Mr Blair once hoped people saw him. It is not a claim the Prime Minister can make today.

In the increasingly personal battle between the two leaders over the Prevention of Terrorism Bill yesterday, it was revealing that Mr Howard presented it as a "question of trust" and Mr Blair as a "question of judgement". Both men probe at the possible weak spot of the other.

As Tories arrived for their spring conference in Brighton yesterday, they certainly had a spring in their step. In the last few months of last year, they were in deep gloom. "We fired our bullets at Labour but no one noticed," one Tory aide admitted. It all changed in the new year. The catalyst was the announcement of the party's immigration policies. People sat up; the Tories were no longer screaming in the wilderness.

The first instalment of their tax cuts, reducing pensioners' council tax bills, was another hit. Senior Tories sense they are in better shape than at any time since 1992.

Is it too little, too late? The Tories set themselves three tests when Mr Howard took over: to become a competent opposition; show they were ready for government and offer a clear choice to the voters. The leadership hopes they have passed all three in recent weeks. Others are not so sure.

Some Tory modernisers worry that successful guerrilla attacks do not amount to a coherent strategy and make the party look negative. Mr Howard will try to answer such criticism when he addresses the conference today. There is no doubt Labour is rattled.

It has won the media game hands down since Mr Blair became party leader in 1994. It regards health as its exclusive domain; only last month, John Reid, the Secretary of State for Health, was goading the Tories for being afraid to talk about it. The Tories think they can get a draw on health, a good result in a tough away match.

Labour says its private polls show it is the only winner when the spotlight is on the NHS. It senses that the Tory plan for the government to meet half the cost when people opt for private treatment is the party's Achilles heel. Some advisers told Mr Howard to ditch it but he refused, which he may live to regret.

But for now, the momentum is with the Tories. Their attacks may turn the election into something that Labour desperately wants to avoid, a referendum on Mr Blair and his record. Some serious Labour players are worried about the marginal seats that will decide the election.

What is the next act in the election drama? Enter, stage left, Gordon Brown, who will present his Budget on Wednesday. The script could not have been written better by his admirers, who say the stage is set for him to rescue a stuttering Labour campaign. That would be payback time for Alan Milburn, Labour's election chief, and Mr Blair, who handed him Mr Brown's old role.

The Chancellor will not produce a giveaway Budget but he will surely give enough away to get Labour back on the front foot. He will highlight the dividing line between Tory tax cuts and higher spending under Labour, saying the Tories would cut £35bn from Labour's plans by 2011. He will produce the forensic attack on the Tories' plans that has been missing from the Labour campaign.

Mr Brown's critics sense a familiar pattern, recalling that he kept his distance from Mr Blair on Iraq and tuition fees before riding to the rescue. The Brown camp replies that he did not sideline himself from the campaign; a sort of control order was imposed by Mr Blair last September.

Whatever the election outcome, at least the Tories have made a fight of it. That is good for the country. It is true that the differences between the big two parties have narrowed. But, as Mr Brown will make crystal clear next week, there will still be a real choice on 5 May.