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Last Updated: Sunday, 7 March, 2004, 13:19 GMT
Is number 10 in Howard's sights?

Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Michael Howard had one overwhelming job to do when he delivered his first party conference speech as Tory leader.

Michael Howard
Party members may now be able to picture Michael Howard as PM

He had to close the credibility gap between talking like a prime minister-in-waiting and actually looking like one.

His predecessor, Iain Duncan Smith never pulled it off. All too often he looked defensive, uncomfortable in his position and, frankly, not up to it.

Michael Howard is an entirely different kettle of fish. He presents himself as experienced, confident and credible.

He may not have persuaded everyone in the Harrogate conference centre that he will be moving into No 10 after the next election - although there are now those in the party who believe that may just be possible.

But he at least looked like he was getting the keys cut.

Plenty of would-be premiers have discovered to their cost just how disastrous the wrong image can be

And, for the first time since 1997, a Tory leader managed to look like he, at least, believes it when he suggests the next election is his for the taking.

"The fear is in the eyes of Labour now, not this party," he told his troops.

There is more to it than image, of course - although plenty of would-be premiers have discovered to their cost just how disastrous the wrong image can be.

The Tories have spent years locked in a civil war which has prevented them from creating a coherent, sustainable alternative vision to New Labour.

Neither Mr Duncan Smith or his predecessor William Hague ever managed to solve that problem, although Mr Duncan Smith certainly started the process of policy formation.

Internal squabbling

Mr Howard has set out down that path, not only with a set of policies designed to appeal to middle England, with low taxes at the heart of his longer term ambitions.

But he has attempted to offer an updated Tory philosophy centred around small government and power to the people.

And it is all rooted in his notion of the "British dream" where someone from a modest background like his can rise to the highest office.

He also had some simple slogans which point the way to the next election campaign.

Whatever Tony Blair promises, his party, his Chancellor and the unions will not let him deliver, he warned.

The Tories would end the divide between the powerful and the powerless, the controllers and the controlled, those who get what they pay for and those who get what they are given, he pledged.

He also attempted to water the seeds of doubt over Labour's future which have been germinating in some quarters over the past few months.

Soundbites about "their time is up. They have run out of steam, run out of ideas and are at a dead end" are designed to portray the government as on the defensive while the Tories are on the attack.

Yet Mr Howard knows he still faces a challenge of historic proportions if he really is to oust Tony Blair at the next election, probably just over a year away.

He has been helped enormously by the sudden decision of his party to stop the internal squabbling and start looking outwards.

And, if the Harrogate performance is anything to go by, the Tories have finally found a leader they can at least picture in No 10 Downing Street.

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