Howard goes in the right direction

WHEN Michael Howard visited Ipswich the other day, you couldn't help being struck by the fact that the Tories' leadership now looks competent for the first time in a decade.

WHEN Michael Howard visited Ipswich the other day, you couldn't help being struck by the fact that the Tories' leadership now looks competent for the first time in a decade.

For the last four years of the last Tory government, the party looked like a dead duck - and during its first six and a half years in opposition it looked like a sick joke.

But since Michael Howard has become leader it has undergone something of a transformation.

And he proved there is no substitute for experience when he met the people of Ipswich at Ruskin Road Post Office.

William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith both came to Ipswich when they were party leader - but both seemed uneasy when faced with real people.

Mr Howard is different. He seems to enjoy pressing the flesh and there's no doubt he is helping to make his party look credible again.

Most Read

He'll probably lead it into success at this year's European and local elections in early June.

But I would urge Conservatives to keep their feet on the ground. I agree with Sir Edward Heath that Mr Howard will never become prime minister.

It's not his age now that will count against him - the next general election is probably only about 14 months away.

But at the election after next Mr Howard will be in his late 60s - and that may be too old.

And I just don't think its realistic to think that the Conservatives will return to power next time.

They've got too much of a mountain to climb.

Labour might have lost much of its popularity over the last two or three years, and the gloss came off the 1997-version of the party years ago.

But it retains its reputation for economic competence, and this will be enough to see Mr Blair back into Downing Street in 2005 - albeit with a much reduced majority.

And while I expect to see Mr Howard's party make gains, they won't be as big as he needs.

And there is the constant threat from the Liberal Democrats who show few signs of running out of steam.

It's always dangerous to describe one politician as "the second xxxx" but I feel sure Mr Howard will fill the same role as Neil Kinnock in the Labour Party.

He won't lead it back to Downing Street, but he will provide it with a base camp from which it can launch its final push.

OPPOSITION politicians at Civic Centre in Ipswich would do well to check their arithmetic before they go around making rash promises about ending Labour rule in June.

At present the Labour Party holds 31 seats on the borough council, with the opposition Tory and Liberal Democrats holding 16 and one being vacant after Gordon Terry was disqualified from the council. Stephen Barker has been suspended from the council for a year, but not disqualified, and is still formally a member of the authority.

The maximum number of Labour seats that the opposition could reasonably expect to win in June is six - and that would be split between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

That would give Labour 25 seats and the opposition 23 - a slim enough majority to make life very interesting in Civic Centre, but still a Labour majority.

But the Tories and Liberal Democrats seem to hate each other more than they hate Labour so it's difficult to see how they would form a united front to attack the current administration!

That has not, however, stopped some of their politicians talking about their dream of ending Labour's domination of Ipswich politics.

But for now it's likely to remain just that - only a dream.

FROM today East Anglia's railways have a new operator - and the promise of £1 billion being invested in the tracks over the next few years.

I hope you'll excuse me if I'm less than ecstatic about Network Rail's maintenance plans. Isn't the company's whole reason for existence to keep the nation's rail network in good order?

It's a bit like Sainsbury's announcing its going to sell lots of food over the next decade - or Norwich Union saying it wants to offer lots of insurance policies.

All we were told was that the company was going to do what it should be doing anyway.

There were no proposals to improve things - no talk about upgrading the cross-country line from Suffolk to the midlands, nothing about improving the East Suffolk line so towns like Woodbridge and Lowestoft can enjoy an hourly link to Ipswich.

The fact that the industry felt it was necessary to make a song and dance about something that should be taken for granted shows just how serious the problems had become during the Railtrack era.