I've been vilified for saying it, but I hold to my view that the Tory party is dying

I still don't know who the real Michael Howard is. Is it Howard hard or Howard lite? Loud or soft?
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The Independent Online

Yesterday the gloom that surrounded the Tories at the beginning of their conference lifted - thanks to Michael Howard's speech to the troops in Bournemouth. The incessant plotting that devoured Iain Duncan Smith at last year's conference was absent. Temporarily at least, the latest dire news from the opinion pollsters was put to one side for Mr Howard's big day. The fact that the multimillionaire Paul Sykes was not about to bankroll UKIP had also put the delegates in a good mood.

Yesterday the gloom that surrounded the Tories at the beginning of their conference lifted - thanks to Michael Howard's speech to the troops in Bournemouth. The incessant plotting that devoured Iain Duncan Smith at last year's conference was absent. Temporarily at least, the latest dire news from the opinion pollsters was put to one side for Mr Howard's big day. The fact that the multimillionaire Paul Sykes was not about to bankroll UKIP had also put the delegates in a good mood.

Following my article earlier in the week, one of Mr Howard's speech- writers, Ed Vaizey, and the chairman of the Conservative Research Department, George Bridges, have been doing their best to make sure that I get on message. "When are you going to write something good about us," shrieked one elderly lady who handbagged me after reading Monday's paper.

Well, Mr Howard made an excellent speech which pressed all the right buttons - at least for his audience. There were crowd pleasing lines for the party faithful on immigration and asylum. The references to Europe sought to pull back votes from UKIP with specific commitments to withdraw from the Social Chapter and from the common fisheries policy. These are substantial announcements that still beg the question, however, "what happens if there is no agreement with other European countries?" Labour will argue - as will UKIP - that total withdrawal would surely be the only option.

But this was nevertheless a speech that was devoid of rant. The tone was softened and much more in tune with the mood of Mr Howard's early speeches when he became party leader last November. So to those who think I was deliberately kicking the party in the teeth, I acknowledge that I can certainly imagine Mr Howard as prime minister. He looks like a national leader and his experience, competence and ability to do the job, unlike his predecessor, is not - and never has - been in doubt.

But even after this speech I still have my doubts about whether this adds up to an over-arching strategy. Until yesterday it has been the more strident tone of the past four months that has been in the ascendant. Rightly, Mr Howard made much of the lack of trust in Tony Blair. But do the voters trust him any more than Mr Blair?

I still do not know who the real Michael Howard is. Is he the one we had a decade ago when he made the infamous "prison works" speech, which was reinforced when he made similarly tough speeches on crime and political correctness during the recent summer recess? Or is he the one we glimpsed for the first few months of his leadership and which reappeared again yesterday. Is it Howard hard or Howard lite? Loud or soft? I still don't know.

The timing of the speech was a departure from tradition. At previous conferences the leader's speech was always the final crowning glory for the troops. The expectation was that Labour might have held last week's by-election in Hartlepool tomorrow - the last day of the conference. The result would have overshadowed Mr Howard's speech, so a decision was taken to avoid this potential nightmare by bringing the speech forward. As things have worked out, the week is improving for the Tories as is the Bournemouth weather. The sun is shining again on Mr Howard - and he is still due to speak again tomorrow before the conference closes.

Exactly seven months from today, on Friday 6 May, there will be a big bang in British politics - if Michael Howard becomes Prime Minister. The Queen will need to be roused from her bed early to ask him to form an administration, because "on day one" the new occupant of No 10 will tell police officers that form-filling will stop. "On day one" headteachers will be given control over their classrooms and be given control over expulsions. "On day one" Civil Service recruitment will be frozen. "On day one" the date for the referendum on the European constitution will be set. Within the first week, the new health and education ministers will begin scrapping Whitehall targets for health and hospitals. The new Foreign Secretary will be signalling Britain's intention to withdraw from the UN refugee convention.

The "timetable for action" will impinge least, however, on the new Chancellor, Oliver Letwin, who seems to have unlimited time to find ways to cut taxes. "When I can, I will cut taxes," said Mr Howard on his behalf. Mr Howard did much metaphorical throat clearing before setting out his vision of a Tory Britain. There was a huge opening section about politicians' broken promises and a mea culpa about the failure of the Tory promise, in government, to cut taxes year on year after the 1992 general election. This was a speech heavy, at the beginning, with promises not to make promises.

There are rumours of tensions among senior Tories about the inability to make specific commitments on tax and the issue still hangs, unresolved, in the air. Stamp duty, council tax, inheritance tax and the threshold for paying top-rate tax have been singled out for possible attention. Appetites have been whetted and vague hints been dropped. If the intention is to save up further specific announcements until the publication of the election manifesto then Mr Letwin runs the risk of Gordon Brown doing to him what he did to Peter Lilley in the 1997 general election campaign. When Mr Lilley was presenting the Tories' "pension plus" policy it was immediately trashed by Mr Brown as "Tories to privatise your pension". It was a meaningless phrase but it somehow struck a chord with voters and Mr Lilley was bogged down in a complicated row that lost more votes.

Mr Howard's immediate task, however, was to staunch the potential flow of votes from the Tories to UKIP. In this he has probably succeeded - for the time being. Credit for this achievement appears to be going to John Redwood who has secured the return of Mr Sykes to the Tory fold. But Mr Howard may have to pay a high price for Mr Redwood's renewed prominence at the heart of the Tory team. I suspect that the TV clip of Mr Redwood's "I'm back" announcement at the start of his own conference debut will be replayed mercilessly by Labour in forthcoming party political broadcasts and posters.

Mr Howard tried to emulate the 1997 Labour pledge card. This time it is "10 words to remember: school discipline, more police, cleaner hospitals, lower taxes, controlled immigration". At least this is a message the average party worker and canvasser can remember although it reads a bit like a supermarket shopping list.

In the end, however, will anything be changed by next week, next month or next May? Whether this speech has altered the voters' perceptions of Mr Howard and the Tory party will only be known when we see the next set of polls. I still fear that the more likely course of events on "day one" will be a grisly telephone call to Tony Blair from above the Starbucks coffee shop in Victoria Street conceding defeat. And the sad fact remains that one good speech, one autumn morning, does not alter any of the facts to which I have previously drawn attention about the hopeless state of the party in many of the constituencies that are without Tory MPs.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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