Nick Wood: UKIP is not the half of it, Michael

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The Independent Online

Michael Howard and his lieutenants have been in denial about UKIP since June when the anti-Brussels party took 16 per cent of the vote in the European elections and beat the Liberal Democrats into fourth place. After the predictable humiliation of the Hartlepool by-election, it is now Howard's party that finds itself in fourth place, with UKIP taking over 10 per cent of the vote.

Michael Howard and his lieutenants have been in denial about UKIP since June when the anti-Brussels party took 16 per cent of the vote in the European elections and beat the Liberal Democrats into fourth place. After the predictable humiliation of the Hartlepool by-election, it is now Howard's party that finds itself in fourth place, with UKIP taking over 10 per cent of the vote.

But as the Conservative leader wraps his head in a wet towel this weekend and ponders the future, no one should get the UKIP threat out of proportion. UKIP will not win a single seat in the general election, but in the process, by depriving the Tories of a slice of badly needed votes, it could prop up Labour in the marginal seats that will decide the result. The challenge for Howard is simple. How does he squeeze the UKIP vote down to something like the 1.5 per cent they polled in 2001? Flannelling on about a "live and let live" Europe is unlikely to do the trick.

Nor should the Tories fret too much about the Liberal Democrats. They are making headway against Labour - not the Tories - and doing so by attacking Tony Blair from the left, mainly on the back of anti-war sentiment. But of Labour's 35 most marginal seats, only six have the Liberal Democrats in second place, so the scope for big Liberal gains is limited unless the Iraq adventure becomes totally discredited.

Howard's problem is that the strategy he will unveil in Bournemouth limits his scope for mounting a sustained assault on UKIP. He intends to ditch his quest for the "vision thing" for a far more down-to-earth depiction of what Britain can expect under a Conservative government. So no more soaring rhetoric - no more shining cities on hills, no more Great Societies and no more rabid Brussels-bashing.

For Howard, it is an abrupt change of direction. Only a few months ago he was following the conventional path of seeking to paint a rosy Tory future in big, bold, brush-strokes. But now, forget the big picture:

it is the fine print that counts. The working slogan for the week is "Action not words". Shadow ministers have been told to ensure that every speech contains a clear timetable for action for an incoming administration, as with yesterday's promise of a referendum on Europe by October next year.

Why the change of tack? The impetus has come from the opinion polls and the Conservatives' focus groups. It is a commonplace to observe that there has been a collapse of trust in Tony Blair. Less well appreciated is the fact that the Conservatives have been dragged down with him. A YouGov poll last month asked people if the Labour government had been honest and trustworthy. Blair's score was minus 43 per cent; but Howard's was scarcely any better at minus 35 per cent. The public is more appalled by Blair's lack of honesty than it is by any of his policy blunders.

Like some ghastly mystery disease, the trust-eating virus first infected the PM but rapidly spread to all parts of the body politic. That may be bad for Labour, but is even worse for the Conservatives. An opposition can make headway only if the public is prepared to listen. If people believe that all politicians are liars, then it is a safe bet that the result of the next election will be much like the last.

It is this public cynicism that Howard is trying to address in Bournemouth. Wild promises are out; concrete statements about what an incoming Tory government will do, and when, are in. But the Hartlepool débâcle will only reinforce doubts about the wisdom of this approach. The Tory conference expects its leaders to provide some rhetorical fireworks.

In a few months from now, in all probability, the party faithful will have to fight a general election. Can this sober approach, which might have been modelled on the Ronseal ad - "it does exactly what it says on the tin" - catch the imagination of the party and the media, reaching a public grown tired of politicians bearing gifts?

Nick Wood is a former media director for the Conservative Party

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