Colin Brown: Howard - Five big themes, and a vow to visit 165 key seats

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The Independent Online

Michael Howard vowed to continue raising "difficult issues" such as asylum and Gypsies as he invited voters to wipe the smile off Tony Blair's face on 5 May.

Michael Howard vowed to continue raising "difficult issues" such as asylum and Gypsies as he invited voters to wipe the smile off Tony Blair's face on 5 May.

Launching his party's campaign at a London hotel, the Tory leader said he would not "appease special interest groups" or sweep sensitive issues under the carpet. "Everyone knows you won't fix a problem if you aren't even prepared to discuss it," he said.

Mr Howard declared that he would not be distracted from doing what was best for Britain by "the smirking politics of Mr Blair or the woolly thinking of the Liberal Democrats."

His message to voters was: "Mr Blair is already secretly grinning about the prospect of his third victory. Well, you don't have to settle for that."

He added: "The choice before voters on 5 May is very clear. They can either reward Mr Blair for eight years of broken promises and vote for another five years of talk. Or they can vote Conservative, to support a party that's taken a stand and is committed to action on the issues that matter to hard working Britons." Mr Howard is promising to visit every one of the 165 seats on the Tories' target list by election day, where their private polls suggest they are doing better than the nationwide surveys suggest. His campaign will focus on his five main themes of law and order, immigration, tax cuts, school discipline and the MRSA hospital superbug.

Tory strategists are also keen for him to use his secret weapon - his wife Sandra, the former model - who is seen as a vital asset in softening the hardline image he had while he was Home Secretary.

But Mr Howard is being advised by senior party officials to attack Mr Blair for a lack of trust after the war on Iraq. "There has been a big change since 2001,'' said one senior Tory. "If Brown were now the leader, we would be toast. But there is a lot of disillusionment with Blair over the trust issue."

The sacking of Howard Flight as a Tory MP for saying he wanted the Tories to go further in cutting public spending appeared to be a blunder. But according to yesterday's NOP poll in The Independent, it seems to have won the support of Tory voters as a welcome smack of firm leadership.

Mr Howard knows that the fate of the Conservative Party rests in his hands over the next three weeks. Another disastrous defeat could plunge the Tory Party into a fight for its own survival, and the search for a younger leader.

William Hague, who failed to dent Tony Blair's massive majority in 2001, was criticised for ditching his strategy in the final days of electioneering by concentrating on immigration and the "save the pound" campaign to secure the core Tory vote.

With a referendum on the European constitution guaranteed after the election, whoever wins, Mr Howard is being advised to keep off the divisive Europe issue and to focus on the domestic agenda. The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, stole some of the Tory thunder by raising the stamp duty threshold in the Budget. However, he refused to raise tax thresholds for many who have been dragged into the higher rate income tax band by wage inflation.

Mr Howard will promise to lift key workers out of the top 40 per cent tax band and is also expected to pledge to raise the starting point for inheritance tax. However, Mr Howard has been given polling evidence to show that the Government is less vulnerable on the economy than on immigration and asylum, the main issue on which the Tories have a strong lead over Labour.

"The issues that William Hague played on in 2001 are beginning to resonate. He has said it was too early, but it is now beginning to change," said one Tory source. "On the economy, you cannot beat Blair because the economy has not crashed yet. On law and order and asylum and immigration, Howard is on to a winner. What we need is more of the same from Howard."

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