The Tories can still win the general election, but only if they remember to keep it simple

Michael Howard is a realist, not a rhetorician; a doer, not a philosopher. He should proceed on the basis of practical policies
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The Independent Online

As Peter Mandelson spent many years trying to discomfit the Conservative Party, it is appropriate that his departure from the Commons should have led to one of the Tories' worst ever by-election results. They did have a solitary piece of luck. Tony Blair's heart problem kept Hartlepool out of the headlines. But on Friday, the Tory party's need for defibrillation was at least as great as the Prime Minister's.

As Peter Mandelson spent many years trying to discomfit the Conservative Party, it is appropriate that his departure from the Commons should have led to one of the Tories' worst ever by-election results. They did have a solitary piece of luck. Tony Blair's heart problem kept Hartlepool out of the headlines. But on Friday, the Tory party's need for defibrillation was at least as great as the Prime Minister's.

Not that Tory strategists are in despair, yet. They argue that, although the two leading parties are both stuck at around 32 per cent in the polls, there is a difference. Given the depth of resentment among those who have turned against Mr Blair, Labour will find it hard to climb back to the low 40s. The Tories face lesser obstacles. They are not contending with anger and a sense of betrayal, merely with a generalised disenchantment along the lines of: "You politicians are all the same. Why should we trust any of you?''

It will not be easy to induce the large number of voters who talk in that way to renounce their sullen scepticism. But the Tories' opinion-poll analysts are certain that they have at least identified the wrong solution to their electoral problem. They are convinced that the answer does not lie in big ideas or exalted language. They were surprised that Labour chose "A Better Life For All'' as the party conference slogan. In the Tories' view, that is just the sort of verbiage which creates electoral cynicism.

"If you are trying to come up with a new roads policy,'' said one of Michael Howard's closer advisors, "it's no use talking about a transport system worthy of the 21st century. That just switches the voters straight off. Instead, say that these are the 10 roads which we will build, right away. Then people can look at a map. They'll see something realistic and believable.''

Believability is the key. To paraphrase St Paul: "Though I speak with the tongues of men, and of angels, and have not credibility, I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.''

Convinced that this now describes Tony Blair's problem with large numbers of voters, the Tories have been searching for credibility. This has both shaped and limited their pre-manifesto document, to be published at the end of the conference. It will only be three or four pages long, which might seem curious given that it has been so much discussed and drafted over. But the restrictions on space and content are deliberate.

Is is not meant to offer sunlit uplands, rainbow promises, or agendas for a radical decade. Instead, the tone will be terse, practical, step-by-step. It will start by describing the immediate action which a Tory government would take on its first day in office. It will move on to the next tasks, to be accomplished within the first week. Then, there will be an account of what a Tory government would have achieved after a mere month in power. The working title should have been "Measure By Measure''.

The Tories believe that all this has a further advantage in that it plays to Michael Howard's strengths. He is a realist, not a rhetorician; a doer, not a philosopher. If he assures the public, and regularly repeats the assurance, that he will proceed on the basis of practical policies which have been worked out in detail, he is more likely to catch their attention. It is much better for him to contrast himself with Blairite afflatus than to try to imitate it.

The Tories also console themselves with focus-group material which seems to point to a susceptibility to the Tory case. Most voters believe that there is too much central-government control over schools and hospitals. They think that policemen spend far too much time on paperwork, and far too little time out on the streets, catching criminals. They are convinced that the asylum system is out of control, that the Government wastes vast amounts of money and that a third-term Labour government would have to raise taxes.

The Tories are certain that, if they were to offer a pledge to cut taxes they would not be believed, but that there is enough mileage in promising to eliminate sufficient waste to make the Labour tax rise unnecessary.

Above all, the Tories believe that au fond, most voters' values are still conservative, and that they are open to persuasion by a phrase which Chris Patten wrote for Margaret Thatcher back in the Seventies. "The facts of life are Tory.'' So not all senior Tories are as despondent as one might have thought they would be, post-Hartlepool. By the end of the week, that could change.

This is the most important Tory party conference for 41 years, since Blackpool in 1963, when the resignation of Harold Macmillan unleashed seven species of chaos, as the candidates for the succession tried to turn the proceedings into a beauty contest, with limited success. Bournemouth is unlikely to see such drama, but the Tories are in desperate need of a bounce. Mr Howard has to make an outstanding speech, the mini-manifesto needs to be well received, and the entire front bench must sing from the same hymn book.

Given a scintilla of a chance, much of the media will impose its own interpretation on the Tories' proceedings: "Lurch to the right'', "Sop to the left'', "Desperate attempt to appease UKIP voters'' - et al. In order for the Tories to avoid this and to ensure that their own spin prevails, leading party figures will have to display more self-discipline than the Tories have proved capable of since the late Eighties.

There ought to be one incentive to good discipline; the gallop towards the election campaign has already begun, so time is desperately short. As another leading Tory put it recently: "I wish we were back in the autumn of 2003, and even if we were, I'd still be saying that we had a tremendous amount to do.'' The Tories are now at time's mercy.

It is not inevitable that this will work to their disadvantage. When outlining their plans, devout Christians used to add "d.v.'': deo volente, God willing. The Tory party now has its own d.v., standing for disillusion - with Mr Blair - and volatility. Many millions of voters have still to make up their minds how they will vote, or whether they will vote at all.

It is not certain that this will work in the Tories' favour. If they are to turn volatile voters in their direction, they will have to be much more effective in putting across their message than they have been for a dozen years. But there is one point on which we can be certain. Mr Blair has a far greater task. Many of his former voters are bruised, scarred and outraged. In previous elections, it was assumed that Prime Ministers who had endured a difficult mid-term would benefit from an almost automatic recovery as the general election approached. That may no longer be valid. Up until recently, Mr Blair seemed immune from mid-terms. His popularity was always high, like a triumphant soufflé.

Now that the soufflé is in trouble, it may be that no amount of tinkling can make it rise again. The Tories may still have to find their orchestra, but these days Mr Blair's merely produces cacophony.

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