Mr Howard's most urgent task is to shape a convincing alternative to New Labour

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Michael Howard was looking surprisingly cheerful in his public appearances yesterday. From his interview on
Breakfast with Frost to his arrival at his Bournemouth conference hotel, the Conservative Party leader appeared determined to prove the doom-watchers wrong. Which was a brave, if not foolhardy, approach to take.

Michael Howard was looking surprisingly cheerful in his public appearances yesterday. From his interview on Breakfast with Frost to his arrival at his Bournemouth conference hotel, the Conservative Party leader appeared determined to prove the doom-watchers wrong. Which was a brave, if not foolhardy, approach to take.

For even by its own recent dismal standards, the Conservative Party has not been doing well. Mr Howard's elevation to the leadership may have livened up Prime Minister's Questions, but it has not livened up the party or significantly improved its electoral showing. The party's fourth place in last week's Hartlepool by-election was its worst performance for years. Even friendly pundits are now asking whether the party has any sort of a future in the 21st century. And when the Prime Minister said in his conference speech last week that his government was "lucky in our Opposition", he was not exaggerating. In terms of the lack of serious competition in Parliament, Mr Blair has been very fortunate indeed.

The central question this week is what Mr Howard can do to revive his party's prospects. The UK Independence Party is a threat that Mr Howard will have to confront head on. As Hartlepool showed, UKIP is taking most of its votes from the Tories, but this may be less because it is anti-Europe than because it is seen as putting British interests first and offering a single, nationalistic idea with verve and style. Mr Howard has a chance of overcoming UKIP, not by lurching to the right, but by showing that UKIP's single-issue obsession is not a desirable or viable platform for a serious party.

Mr Howard will also have to address the vexed question of the Iraq war and his party's support for it. If only, some must lament, the party had listened to the likes of Kenneth Clarke and Lord Hurd and opposed the war - where would it be now in the polls? It is too late for regret, but Mr Howard could do worse than borrow a point or two from John Kerry's US debate stance last week if he wants to support the principle of the war, while denouncing the outcome.

The greatest problem for the Tories, though, is the extent to which Mr Blair's New Labour project has occupied the broad centre and some traditionally centre-right ground (law and order, immigration) as well. It was noteworthy how, in his early months as leader, Mr Howard seemed intent on contesting precisely those areas where the Government was perceived to have tried and failed. He challenged Labour on school standards and hospitals, on conditions on council estates, on race relations and on law and order. This was a bold approach, but it was bungled.

Proposals for school and health vouchers, dubbed "passports", were poorly presented. Such policies, if properly thought out, however, could still have mileage. So could Tory considerations on law and order and immigration, but only if Mr Howard can resist the temptation to attack from the perspective of the crude, xenophobic right. As shadow Home Secretary, Oliver Letwin showed how to score points against David Blunkett with arguments that rested on a strict interpretation of the law, coupled with humanitarian considerations. Mr Howard's decision to replace Mr Letwin with David Davis and, recently, to bring John Redwood into the Shadow Cabinet smacked of nostalgia, not a quest for more modern policies.

Taxation and pensions are also areas where the Tories could appeal to old and new constituencies, including those sections of the middle classes disillusioned with New Labour. They resent the erosion of their pensions, have borne the brunt of "stealth" taxes, and are looking for someone to represent their interests.

The single most disappointing aspect of Mr Howard's leadership to date has not been his party's failure at the ballot box so much as his failure to shape the party into a convincing alternative government. It is in the interests of everyone in this country, the Prime Minister included, for there to be a thriving Opposition. It is still sorely missed.

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