To be effective in opposition, Mr Howard needs bigger and more positive ideas

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The Independent Online

Have big political ideas become dangerous? We only ask because this has been the conference season in which the leaders of Britain's two biggest parties dropped all claim to offer anything like inspiration and vision and set about lowering expectations instead.

Have big political ideas become dangerous? We only ask because this has been the conference season in which the leaders of Britain's two biggest parties dropped all claim to offer anything like inspiration and vision and set about lowering expectations instead.

First Tony Blair, in a low-key conversational style, presented a blueprint of small specifics for the third term he said he was convinced Labour would win. Yesterday Michael Howard chipped in a methodical, workmanlike way at a set of small-print priorities that seemed to come straight from the standard focus-group list of New Labour failings. Even trust - easily Mr Blair's greatest liability after Iraq - was apparently too big, too abstract a concept to be peddled too assiduously in Mr Howard's first conference speech as Tory leader. He adopted the safer, clumsier, more technocratic "accountability" as his leitmotif instead.

This was not a bad speech. It was well organised, well delivered in a barrister's way, and it pressed all the correct buttons for Tory activists in need of convincing that their new leader was on the right track. Where Mr Blair had given his party faithful six simple words: "Choice is not a Tory word", Mr Howard offered 10: "School discipline; more police; cleaner hospitals; lower taxes; controlled immigration." But these are not great aspirations.

Indeed, in many respects Mr Howard's ambitions seemed more timid and more skewed towards his party's right wing than the speech in which he made his leadership bid almost one year ago. Then, he promised to lead from the centre and reach out to all parts of society. He would not, he said, head a party of "little Englanders". That was a plausible national leader speaking. The man we heard yesterday was a Tory all too conscious of the pressure bearing down from the Shires and the UK Independence Party snapping at his heels.

Mr Howard was about as unfriendly to the European Union as it was possible to be, short of calling for withdrawal. He pledged an early referendum on the EU constitution, along with a new approach to Brussels that would effectively facilitate a "two-speed" Europe (with Britain in the crawler lane). On immigration, he undertook - predictably - to introduce annual quotas and - disgracefully - to pull out of the UN convention on refugees.

Mr Howard's early, and probably stage-managed reward, was the announcement by a big UKIP donor, Paul Sykes, that he would not fund the party's efforts in a general election because he did not like its threat to "kill" the Tory party. Whether the loss of one donor will diminish the threat from UKIP, however, is unlikely.

More striking even than Mr Howard's nods to the right was the peevishly negative tone of many of his proposals and the poverty of his ambitions. He would scrap Labour policies, government jobs and paperwork aplenty, from his first day in office. He favoured tax cuts, but made no real promises; he would cut taxes only "when I can". There was no return to the vouchers for school places and medical provision broached so chaotically earlier this year. The lack of specifics was disappointing.

True, there was method in this modesty. Mr Howard was well aware that he could not with one breath impugn Mr Blair's credibility and offer promises with the next that a Tory government would not be able to keep. Such an approach has merit. It was refreshing to hear Mr Howard admit that all politicians had made promises they could not keep and that the Tory tax rises of 1992 had been one such broken promise. He also made a more convincing defence of his stance on Iraq than Mr Blair had done, while insisting that Mr Blair had not been "truthful" and "did not behave as a British prime minister should". This was economical and effective.

No amount of neat phrasing, however, could make this into a speech of a prime minister in waiting. It was a speech of a leader whose party is on the back foot, even in Opposition; a leader confined to small ideas, because the party in its current, fragile, state cannot unite around any greater vision.

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