Michael Howard's tactics are winning headlines, but they won't win the election

He will need to take care not to become the saloon-bar bore grumping about every nit-picking issue

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As the pre-election campaign draws to a close - with a mere six more parliamentary sittings and just one more Prime Minister's Questions before Parliament is dissolved - it is time for a reality check. If the latest ICM poll is correct, the main parties are exactly where they were on polling day, 7 June 2001. At the last general election, Labour ended up with 40.7 per cent, with the Tories on 31.7 per cent and the Liberal Democrats achieving 18.3 per cent. Yesterday's opinion poll puts Labour at 40 per cent, Tories at 32 per cent and the Lib Dems on 20 per cent.

As the pre-election campaign draws to a close - with a mere six more parliamentary sittings and just one more Prime Minister's Questions before Parliament is dissolved - it is time for a reality check. If the latest ICM poll is correct, the main parties are exactly where they were on polling day, 7 June 2001. At the last general election, Labour ended up with 40.7 per cent, with the Tories on 31.7 per cent and the Liberal Democrats achieving 18.3 per cent. Yesterday's opinion poll puts Labour at 40 per cent, Tories at 32 per cent and the Lib Dems on 20 per cent.

There is though one significant difference: all the recent polls are showing much smaller Labour leads compared with the equivalent period in the 2001 pre-election campaign. Then, opinion polls over-estimated Labour's lead by up to 10 points. Now it is rare for Labour to register even 40 per cent. But the Tories are still registering their average rating for the past 13 years - since Black Wednesday in September 1992.

Such movement as there is seems to be accounted for by transfers from Labour to the Liberal Democrats. So for all the frenetic activity by Michael Howard over the past six weeks - and the near panic he has successfully created within Labour high command - we seem to be back precisely where we started at the beginning of this year.

Mr Howard has, nevertheless, consistently commanded the attention of the media and led the political agenda on a series of issues. Asylum and immigration; legal protection for "have-a-go" householders threatened with prosecution if they defend their property from burglars; the war of Margaret Dixon's shoulder; brinkmanship over the new terrorism legislation; illegal Gypsy encampments - all of these have proved to be a rich seam for dramatic Tory headlines.

No one can accuse the Tory leader of failing to capture the media initiative, and the general consensus is that by commandeering these "dog-whistle" issues Mr Howard has been right to rely heavily on the advice given to him by Lynton Crosby, his Australian campaign guru. But as our political editor, Andrew Grice, has rightly pointed out, Mr Howard may have won the air war but he has yet to make any impact on the ground war. He will need to take care not to become the saloon-bar bore grumping about every nit-picking issue.

As one of only three Tory MPs who was pilloried for opposing the passage of his wretched Clause 28 (for which he has now apologised - although not yet to me), I cannot help seeing precisely the same attitude by the Tory leader towards Gypsies, asylum- seekers and immigrants as that which he adopted against gays nearly 20 years ago. Then it was the gays who were Mr Howard's bogeymen - whose votes he was cheerfully prepared to sacrifice for the greater prize of the then predominantly anti-gay vote among the electorate. The tactic he is employing now is not much different to the one I saw at first-hand in 1987.

There is no doubt, however, that such tactics have lifted the mood among Tory MPs and - even more important - among candidates and party workers challenging Labour and Lib Dem incumbents. Morale and money-raising activity is back to the level of enthusiasm evident at the time that Mr Howard took over the leadership at the back end of 2003.

After a year in the doldrums, Mr Howard has found his line and length again both in the Commons and in his media initiatives. The mood at the recent Tory spring forum led to many activists demanding an apology from me for my apocalyptic views when I last confronted them at last autumn's party conference. I compromised by conceding that my autumn assessment that it was "impossible" for the Tories to win had moderated to "unlikely" - although I am inclined to return to my original assessment.

Such was the high level of morale that, until the latest poll, many Tory MPs believed that the forthcoming election was more likely to be a repeat of 1992, rather than the 1987 third-term win for the incumbent government. One or two become so prematurely intoxicated with the recent mood of optimism that they even dared to imagine a repeat of the 1970 surprise win by Edward Heath. A small amount of Tory good news certainly has had a disproportionate effect on the willingness of activists and candidates to do an extra hour's canvassing on a rainy Saturday evening. My own speaking engagements during the past month on the Tory rubber-chicken circuit support these assessments.

But these are tactics. They do not amount to an overall strategy, and I suspect that Tory high command is mistaking one for the other. The economy has to be the foundation from which everything else in the election campaign will flow. They will be disappointed at the instant bounce Labour appears to have derived from Gordon Brown's Budget. But they could still make headway if only they would concentrate daily on the inevitability of Labour's third-term tax rises. And I am amazed that, after the universal roasting Labour received from the media about its bogus poster allegations of £35bn Tory cuts, Mr Howard has not followed up on this issue. His initial Budget response of "Vote now, pay later" played well, but it deserves repetition by every frontbench spokesman every day until polling day.

It is extraordinary that the Labour's one-off £200 council-tax bribe to pensioners is not contrasted with the Tories' more permanent scheme to halve pensioners' bills up to £500 every year. It is also surprising that little has been made over last weekend's newspaper reports showing that Labour's total tax bill will need to increase by £35bn during the next Parliament. One of the enduring lessons of New Labour's 1997 campaign was that the message has to be repeated until the messengers are utterly bored with it. Only then does it enter the public consciousness.

Mr Howard's greatest achievement has been to put himself firmly in front of the voters. His recognition factor compared to both his immediate predecessors is considerable, and is the positive benefit of the Tories' choosing an experienced politician who has been at the forefront of public life for the best part of two decades. He has decided to try to make a virtue out of the necessity caused by Labour's - albeit cack-handed - decision to focus on his personality. Not a single Tory initiative is announced without his fingerprints firmly on the media launch. At the Tory spring conference he successfully managed the difficult trick of pulling off the image of the loveable family man. But the brutal truth has to be faced, from the latest polls, that he is simply not going to loved by the voters.

The Tories' hopes are predicated on the greater likelihood of their supporters to turn out. Tory voters now hate Mr Blair (almost as much as many Labour voters) and will go to the polls with gritted determination. But the party still has to cross the political Rubicon by making converts from other parties. The Tories say that, on the ground, it feels like 1992. But the polls still point to a repeat of 1987. The polls, like pundits, can of course be wrong.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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