There is unexpected octane in the Tory tank

The centrepiece of the Conservative promise on tax will appeal to earners feeling the pinch
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The Independent Online

The central aim of all three political parties in this election campaign - apart from winning - will be to get every voter to imagine the possibility that Michael Howard might be Prime Minister in four weeks' time. The Tories will use the springboard of yesterday's opinion polls to energise their supporters.

The central aim of all three political parties in this election campaign - apart from winning - will be to get every voter to imagine the possibility that Michael Howard might be Prime Minister in four weeks' time. The Tories will use the springboard of yesterday's opinion polls to energise their supporters.

Taking the average, Labour now appears to have only a mere three per cent lead over the Tories - with the Liberal Democrats registering just over 20 per cent. By contrast, on the eve of the 2001 general election Labour had an average lead of 20 per cent. Previous polls usually over-estimated Labour's lead which, in the actual general election, turned out to be just 9 per cent.

The most fascinating finding of yesterday's findings was the Mori poll which showed that, where voters are absolutely certain to vote, the Tories actually have a 5 per cent lead over Labour. So the lower the turnout the better the Tories will do. Such a result would still give Labour more MPs than the Tories - thanks to the unfair bias against the Tories in the current electoral system. The Tories need proportional representation almost as much as the Liberal Democrats.

But the pause in political activity following the death of the Pope has enabled Mr Howard to escape from the embarrassment of the Howard Flight debacle. These polls suggest that Labour has so far failed to score any advantage from this distraction. The Conservative Party has demonstrated a new ruthless - unpleasant but effective - streak worthy of Alastair Campbell. Tonight the Tory rank and file in Arundel and South Down will vote, from a short-list of two women and a gay man, for a new candidate to be the next Member of Parliament.

Any local dissent over the decision to deselect Mr Flight has been ruthlessly crushed. This constituency selection procedure is being talked of, privately, as a test-bed method for the way in which future candidates might be chosen. All three candidates are highly regarded and Mr Flight, being a gentleman, has decided not to allow his supporters to split the association by gracefully withdrawing. Previous mutterings of him standing as an independent are now misplaced, and any blood on the Tory carpet will be hidden until after the polls have closed on 5 May.

Such is the state of euphoria at Conservative campaign headquarters at the way MPs, candidates and footsoldiers have bowed the knee to Mr Howard's iron discipline that there is even talk of a repeat of the surprise Tory win in 1970. Electoral mathematics make this unlikely, but it is clear that there is definitely more octane in the Tory tank. As our own NOP poll shows, the Tories are actually still flatlining on 33 per cent. Indeed, they are even down a point on last month and barely above their actual 1997 and 2001 general election results. But rather like my replacement Vauxhall Corsa, which still has the same sized engine as its predecessor, the new Tory machine under Mr Howard comes with 16 rather than eight valves.

The more that Mr Howard looks like becoming Prime Minister, however, the more that Labour and the Liberal Democrats will try to energise their own supporters into going to the polls. This will be the flip side of the task I faced in Cleethorpes in 1992. I was convinced at the beginning of that campaign that I was in for a tough fight. Grumpy Tories were fed up with the aftermath of the poll tax and only by scaring them with the prospect of Neil Kinnock becoming Prime Minister could I finally get them to the polls. In the last week of the campaign I started breathing more easily. This time Labour will face an uphill struggle in the early days in energising its supporters but may succeed during the closing days of the campaign in getting their supporters out if they can threaten them with the possibility of Mr Howard becoming Prime Minister.

Mr Howard's "dog-whistle" campaign on issues such immigration, crime and Gypsies has captured the imagination of women. And Essex man and the rest of his colleagues in the C2 social class are also responding to Mr Howard's call to heel. The Tories have one final card to play on tax. Apart from their plans to lift the threshold for inheritance tax and to halve pensioners' council tax bills, they still have more than half of their £4bn reserved for tax cuts yet to announce. This centre-piece of their electoral promise on tax reductions remains a closely guarded secret, but it promises to appeal to average earners, who are now beginning to feel the Labour pinch.

Of course the capacity of the Tory party to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory sometimes knows no bounds. How Mr Howard reacts to unplanned campaign hiccups will test his tough "something of the knife" approach to party leadership. At 64, his physical stamina will also be under scrutiny. A heavy cold seemed to be the principal personal consequence of the Howard Flight crisis, causing one journalist to question him as to whether he was "up for the fight". He will give it all he's got - but this may still not be enough.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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