The Sketch: Still playing catch-up? You need a good dose of Tony Blair

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The Independent Online

To launch the new Tory leader's campaign, we all went off to a village hall in a marginal constituency. Folkestone, arf arf. Yes, the betting shop is offering odds of 9-1 that Michael Howard will lose his seat in the next election (it's normally 100-1 for party leaders). No, seriously, the constituency was Putney. That really is serious. Leafy Putney is marginal, that's what things have come to.

We'd heard the assumption of the leader by the 1922 Committee earlier in the day. There'd been a gurgling sound in the corridor as from some unfathomed vortex, and then Sir Michael Spicer's voice emerged from a loudspeaker to tell us that Michael Howard's nomination was the only valid one received. A low, rhythmic zulu-ulu-ulu noise followed this like the rumble of a thousand dyspeptic Tory bellies, and a rattle as of a thousand spears on hide shields. It was quite a moving moment. Then Henry Bellingham, that vast and genetically improbable insect, tipped down the corridor. "Late bid coming through," he said.

Down in the marginal constituency things were running late. Things generally are running about 10 years late for the Conservatives, but this was ridiculous. Half an hour after the appointed time, the new leader arrived.

We inside the hall had to rely on outside reports that a blind man on the pavement had been hurried out of Howard's way. That really would have been worth watching.

The activists (dark suits, open-necked blue shirts) were kept in the front hall, and the air was thick with that ideological musk they give off. Then applause. The blind man had been negotiated. Then cheers. Mr Howard was in the building. And then the speech. It said, sort of: "Our task is to be a credible and appealing alternative government. Rigorous honesty. A party for all Britain and all Britons. A living, thriving community where people come together to make things happen. People want fairness. It is the system of central control that needs changing. We are passionately committed to the transformation of our public services."

Does it sound familiar? Much of it has been said before at one time or another, you may remember, and by Tony Blair. It worked pretty well for Mr Blair; it may work for Mr Howard but it is still pretty much catch-up.

There was a grudging acknowledgement of Mr Blair's virtues, but Mr Howard won't make progress until he can get the following words out of his mouth: "Tony Blair is a nice young man who is doing his best to make things better - and many of the things he wants, we want as well." It is what Conservative voters who vote Labour have to hear.

simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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