Howard distances himself from the Thatcher years

Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, has distanced himself from the era of Margaret Thatcher, and said the Tories had changed.

Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, has distanced himself from the era of Margaret Thatcher, and said the Tories had changed.

Launching the Conservative election manifesto, Mr Howard said: "Today I lead a changed Conservative Party."

His remarks contradicted Labour election strategists who accused Mr Howard of being an arch-Thatcherite who was responsible for the introduction of the poll tax as the Environment Secretary in the Thatcher Cabinet. Mr Howard said: "We have moved on. We are in a different century. The country has different challenges. Of course we have moved on."

However, there was no suggestion that he had modernised the party. Instead, Mr Howard made the campaign a personal crusade, saying that at his age he could retire, but did not intend to do so because he wanted to fight for a change of course in Britain.

"I'm 63 years-old," he said. "I've fought many battles in my life." He said he had battled against "union bullies" who crippled the economy, judges who said crime could not be beaten, and from his beginnings in state school to become leader of the Conservative Party.

"I could easily decide to hang up my boots, enjoy my retirement and spend more time with my grandchildren. I'm not going to do that because there's another battle I have to fight. I love my country and I know it can be a much better place to live than it is today."

A senior Conservative close to Mr Howard said: "He's more relaxed because he's found what he's for - he is not a good administrator, but he is enjoying going out campaigning."

Some pro-European Tory candidates are dismayed by the right-wing tone of the manifesto. "It will go down well in the pub, but not at my public meetings," said a former minister. "I will avoid using it."

In a clear reference to his decision to raise the temperature over immigration, Mr Howard said he was unafraid of raising issues that others wanted to push under the carpet.

Mr Howard rejected claims that the Tory manifesto was thin on detail, and long on generalities. He said the remaining £2.7bn on tax cuts were being delayed but would be announced shortly.

The Conservative leader has dismayed some Thatcherite Tories by limiting the scope for future tax cuts to £4bn. So far, the Tories have allocated £1.3bn of the tax cuts to cutting council tax by up to £500 a year for people aged 65 or over.

Oliver Letwin, the shadow Chancellor, is expected to use the remaining £2.7bn on lifting thresholds to take more middle-income earners out of the 40 per cent upper rate of income tax, and cuts in inheritance tax.

Labour hit back by claiming the Tories' budget opened a bigger black hole. Ed Balls, a Labour candidate and former key adviser to Gordon Brown, said the Tory manifesto contained extra public spending totalling £15bn while pledging cuts in public spending and borrowing. Mr Balls said higher spending by the Tories could lead to higher interest rates, threatening mortgages. But the Tories accused Labour of spreading lies about their spending plans.

For example, the Tories said, Labour had costed pupil passports at £1bn on the assumption that the Tory policy allowing parents to send children free of charge to private schools would be a "deadweight" cost, because it would finance parents who already send children to private schools. "This in untrue," said the Tories.

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