So who is thinking what they're thinking?

Mr Howard's strategy is unlikely to take him to Downing Street, but it may yield 50 Labour seats

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For once The Conservative manifesto is devoid of a vacuous title. Down the ages we have had variations on "Making Life Better"; "Firm Action for a Fair Britain"; "The Right Approach" and, in 2001, "Time for Common Sense". The authors and designers of the party's 2005 offering deserve top marks for a simple approach.

For once The Conservative manifesto is devoid of a vacuous title. Down the ages we have had variations on "Making Life Better"; "Firm Action for a Fair Britain"; "The Right Approach" and, in 2001, "Time for Common Sense". The authors and designers of the party's 2005 offering deserve top marks for a simple approach.

In marker pen manuscript the front cover is plastered with Michael Howard's repetitive refrain: more police; cleaner hospitals; lower taxes; school discipline; controlled immigration and accountability. Underneath are the words "Are you thinking what we're thinking? It's time for action." Notwithstanding Boris Johnson's fear of getting the mantra wrong, by coming out with "More immigration and cleaner policemen", most other candidates can probably be relied on to repeat the message correctly to the point of saying it in their sleep. When tested on the BBC1 Breakfast programme yesterday even I managed to get the script right. On that basis there is a fair chance that Tory voters will drink in the message.

As a piece of artwork it is brilliantly succinct and well presented. It is the first manifesto that I have found readable. As a candidate I never found a manifesto much use during a campaign. Only one or two copies were sent to the local party office where they gathered dust until their broken promises came back to haunt me at a subsequent election. At just 28 pages long, this one, like the perfect lady's cocktail dress, is long enough to cover everything but still short enough to be enticing. It is the shortest Tory manifesto since 1966 (a disastrous election for the Tories) and half the length of the 2001 offering. In the past such documents, from all parties, have suffered from trying to cover every aspect of public policy beyond the point of being turgid. Under the section "Accountability", all the remaining policy pronouncements not contained in the specific sections relating to crime, health, taxation, education and immigration, are bundled together within three pages.

There are no new proposals or surprises and all the promises have previously been trailed in the welter of press conferences and speeches since Mr Howard launched his 10-word summary during last autumn's party conference. The promise to lower taxes has no specific proposals, apart from the promise to reduce pensioners' council taxes. The expectation is that later this week Mr Howard will showcase the details of how he will spend his remaining £2.7bn of tax cuts, in the first Tory post-election budget. Speculation centres on easing the pain for middle income earners - many of whom now find themselves paying the 40 per cent higher rate because of Labour's repeated failure to index tax thresholds.

If there is a weakness it is that there is no overarching political or philosophical link between each commitment. Mr Howard defends the approach on the basis that each promise is as a result of listening to the varied concerns of the British people. He maintains that the general theme is based on what people want and that the manifesto is a "made to measure document dealing with their real concerns". He believes that his 10 words on the cover of the document are the simple longings of the British people - "people who feel forgotten and ignored". Such people are probably already instinctively Conservative. This looks like a carefully targeted attempt to maximise every single Tory vote. If Mr Howard can persuade 100 per cent of the one-third of the voters who are Tory, he can make disproportionate gains at Labour's expense should Labour voters maintain their current apathy.

Party strategists are concentrating the bulk of their efforts on a mere 838,000 voters in 160 or so target constituencies. This is a quite different approach to my early elections. In 1979 I never bothered very much with the Tory vote. The presumption was that they were so angry with the Callaghan government anyway that they needed no prompting. The aim then was to identify Labour voters and persuade them to break a lifetime habit. Most of my effort was concentrated in the worst sink council estates in Scunthorpe and the Tory promise of discounted council house sales meant that the central message was aimed at the heart of the enemy.

Mr Howard's strategy is different and unlikely to take him to Downing Street but it may still yield a valuable haul of 50 or so Labour seats. Eventually the Tories will have to convert Labour voters but that is for another day, another election. Within the limits of the Tories current (unspoken) ambition - to deny Mr Blair his majority - this manifesto could well do the business.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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