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Last Updated: Saturday, 6 March, 2004, 17:04 GMT
Howard sheds tough image
By Ben Davies
BBC News Online, in Harrogate

If the truth be told, Michael Howard has in the past suffered from a somewhat austere image.

Perhaps it is because of his years as a tough-talking, "lock 'em up" home secretary.

Since he took over from Iain Duncan Smith in November, he has been at some pains to show a warmer side of his personality.

Michael Howard in Harrogate
Howard impressed people he met
But it still came as something of a surprise to see him walk into the conference centre, dressed in a blue V-neck jumper and slacks, and wander around glad-handing the party faithful.

Flanked by his glamorous wife, Sandra, his arrival at the Harrogate conference centre for his party's spring gathering had been well flagged up by his press team.

Several TV cameras and newspaper snappers on hand, Mr Howard delivered the message that he hopes will be picked up ahead of important elections this June.

He told the assembled press that his party now offered a "real choice" to the electorate.

"A choice between a Conservative government that will keep spending under control and a Labour government that will introduce third term tax rises.

"A Conservative government that trusts people and will give them control, and a Labour government that believes that big government is best."

At ease

Then it was up the spiral walkway to meet those Tory representatives who happened to be relaxing outside the main conference room.

He chatted with stallholders at the Conservatives in the European Parliament stand.

Then he strolled up to the cafe area where he stopped and talked individually to what seemed to be each member of a clearly admiring throng.

Mr Howard is clearly rather good at the people thing. He seemed very at ease, stopping to kiss some of the women Tories and shaking hands with the men.

The one big change that has taken place in the party since his appointment is called leadership
Ernest Lister
Somerset Conservatives
And he went down well. On Sunday he delivers his first conference speech as Tory leader - an extremely important occasion by any reckoning.

But for a moment he seemed happy just to bask in the warmth of a reinvigorated party membership.

Afterwards BBC News Online talked to some of the people who had the chance to meet Mr Howard.

Ernest Lister, the chairman of Somerset Conservatives, said he thought Mr Howard seemed "very relaxed".

"He's the leader of the party and the party has got to know him, not just images on the television or something. He's got to be a person who we can relate to."


Mr Lister said that Mr Howard had seemed well briefed about the political position in Somerset, asking about progress in some of the seats the party was targeting.

"The one big change that has taken place in the party since his appointment is called leadership - he knows where he's going."

Mr Lister added he was "delighted" with the direction the party was now taking.

Catrin Edwards from Mid Wales said she had met Mr Howard before when he visited his home town of Llanelli a few weeks ago.

I think he's got this extra quality that some politicians don't have
Barry Harding
"I think he's absolutely excellent. What he has achieved in three months is absolutely marvellous.

"We've had 20,000 new members, and we are ahead in the opinion polls. What more can you ask?"

She added that the "buzz" at the Harrogate conference was unprecedented in recent times.

"It's nice to seem him in a relaxed mood here and the way he's come round and spoken to everyone - we haven't seen that for a long time either."

Barry Harding from West Wales said he thought that Mr Howard's ability to communicate with ordinary people was a legacy of his childhood in Llanelli.

"I think he's got this extra quality that some politicians don't have."

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