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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 March, 2004, 09:52 GMT
Tory party samples its new leader
Ben Davies
BBC News Online, in Harrogate

As speeches go Michael Howard's debut performance at a Tory party conference as leader probably won't go down in history as the greatest oration ever.

Well not unless it becomes the moment pundits identify as the first step on the path back to power.

Michael Howard
Dubbing Gordon Brown a "tax and regulation junkie" went down well

But it seemed to have all the ingredients that the rank and file wanted.

In the conference hall there was a ray of sunshine, a few servings of laughter, there may even have been tears.

Mr Howard also served up several portions of anger and a big dollop of self-deprecation.

His audience lapped it up and would have come back for seconds if they could.

It may have been raining in Harrogate, but Mr Howard thought it had been a "glorious spring conference".

But that didn't stop him being angry. He was angry over truancy, he was angry over violent crime, he was angry over missed opportunities, he was angry over waiting lists.

The Tories clearly love him. He's given them hope again and it's a different party in just a few short months

The conference hall was full and the representatives loved it.

And there were some good gags too.

The best was about Gordon Brown being a "tax and regulation junkie".

"There's a questionnaire that's been developed by a well known London clinic," said Mr Howard.

"It's designed to help people face up to their addictions. So here are some helpful questions to find out just how bad Gordon's habit really is.

  • Do you use tax and regulation to help you cope with your problems?

  • Are tax and regulation affecting your reputation?

  • Have you lost friends since you started taxing and regulating?

  • Have you ever tried to quit or cut back taxing and regulating?

  • Do you need to tax and regulate more than you used to in order to get the effect you want?

    Mr Howard also mocked the prime minister, branding him "impotent" and unable to "deliver change".

    And he dismissed the Liberal Democrats in a couple of short paragraphs.

    'Right man'

    The Tories clearly love him. He's given them hope again and it's a different party in just a few short months.

    They even forgave him one of the cheesier lines of recent political history when he called for "the sunshine of choice to break through the clouds of state control".

    As they came out of the conference hall the verdict seemed pretty much unanimous. It was a "brilliant" speech, they said.

    Vera Tomlinson from Swindon said: "He's given us the will to win the next election.

    "He's the right man, in the right position for this time and we will win the next general election - you'll see it in the local elections in June and you'll see it in the European elections which are forerunners to the general election."

    Javed Arain from Derby said he was "totally delighted".

    "I think the Conservative Party is certainly going forward, he's galvanised the party, the support is there."

    He added he thought the Tories would win the next election.

    Lynne Faulkner from Bedford said Mr Howard had managed to convey in straightforward terms why Britain needed a Tory government.

    "Labour have failed to deliver after seven years, they believe in the dead hand of state control, we believe in people being free to develop their own lives and he articulated it brilliantly."

    James Nason from Shrewsbury said the big highlight for him in the speech was the sense of choice Mr Howard had outlined, and the British dream.

    "The party is now unified. There's a great sense of unity, and I guess energy, in the party and I think Howard really showed that. It's certainly the best conference speech I've ever heard."

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