Michael Howard launches campaign

IS MICHAEL Howard going to be the Tories' Tony Blair - leading them back to power after years in the political wilderness?Or is he the party's Neil Kinnock - able to enthuse his own diehard supporters but unable to reach out to the wider electorate?Within three weeks we should know - but for now he's a busy man, hoping that the route he is setting himself and his party will lead right up to the door of Number 10.

IS MICHAEL Howard going to be the Tories' Tony Blair - leading them back to power after years in the political wilderness?

Or is he the party's Neil Kinnock - able to enthuse his own diehard supporters but unable to reach out to the wider electorate?

Within three weeks we should know - but for now he's a busy man, hoping that the route he is setting himself and his party will lead right up to the door of Number 10.

On the day I met him, he was settling into his new office in the new Conservative Central Office - or Conservative Campaign Headquarters as it's officially known at present.

The place is in a state of frenzied excitement at the moment, and Mr Howard himself is clearly up for the fight - and ready to land some early blows. He's already set the cat among the pigeons by championing the case of Margaret Dixon who had had her operation delayed seven times in Warrington Hospital.

And his attack on planning laws governing travellers' sites also provoked a political storm with his opponents accusing him of picking on a minority.

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But Mr Howard was unapologetic: “I think people are feeling let down by Mr Blair. We are putting down our policies on a variety of issues to show what a Conservative government will do - and they are striking a chord with many people.

“We have practical proposals and I am sure we could do a better job than the present government.”

He was anxious to deny Labour claims that a vote for the Conservatives would lead to the health service being starved of cash.

“We are going to spend a great deal more money on the health service over the next few years.

“We are going to spend less than the Labour Party is proposing to spend. In our case the money will go on hospitals and their front-line services and not on bureaucracy.”

And he defended proposals to offer patients NHS money to go towards private treatment.

“If that frees up resources in the NHS, what is the problem? It means that the patient is getting treated sooner and others are able to move up the waiting list to also get treated sooner,” he said.

During the last Conservative government, it was often said that the country was run by the “East Anglian mafia” as a number of MPs from the region held senior Government jobs.

These included Suffolk Coastal MP John Gummer. Today South Suffolk MP Tim Yeo is shadow environment and transport spokesman.

Mr Howard is hoping to see an influx of new MPs from the region: “I would like to see a great deal more Conservative MPs from East Anglia, and I am confident that will happen,” he said.

Europe was the issue that divided Conservatives in the 1990s - but as an issue it now seems to have died down, at least within the party itself.

Mr Howard said: “Our position is very clear and I do not think you will hear any argument from within the party.

“We want to remain in Europe as a trading partner with other nations - but not to have our laws dictated by Brussels,” he said.

One criticism we have heard about politicians has come from young voters who say they are only interested in chasing the “grey vote” - pensioners who are, statistically, more likely to turn out on the day.

It was a claim Mr Howard disputed: “I think we are reaching out to new voters. Our youth organisation is increasing its activities and we have the largest party organisation in the country's universities.

“And we have policies which are relevant to young people - we are offering 14 to 19-year-olds a half day work experience a week while they are at school.

“I want to see a more skilled workforce with more training places - although we do not agree with the government's 50 per cent target for people to go to university because that kind of education isn't always best for everyone,” he said.

Mr Howard remains confident that his party will win the election despite Labour's 160-seat majority.

“We lost all those seats in one night, so I'm sure we can win them all back again in one night!” he said.

DURING my conversation with the opposition leader, Mr Howard had a sheet of facts and figures about Ipswich in Suffolk in front of him - but he seemed happier answering questions in a general form rather than specific to our area.

When I asked him about cash problems at Ipswich Hospital and East Suffolk PCT, he answered generally and brought up the case of Margaret Dixon, the Warrington woman whose problems with having operations cancelled made national headlines.

Ipswich is a Conservative target in the general election - although it is not at the top of their “must win” list. It is, of course, impossible for any one person to have instant facts and figures about every part of the country in their head.

But I suspect we'll be bombarded with many more statistics about how bad life is in Suffolk and Ipswich from the Conservatives and how good it is from Labour before the end of the campaign!

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