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Last Updated: Friday, 25 March 2005, 22:28 GMT
Flight comments torpedo Tory campaign
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

Michael Howard must feel like committing murder.

Michael Howard
Mr Howard sacked Mr Flight as deputy party chairman

After weeks throwing Labour onto the back foot and out-flanking its stalled pre-election campaign, just one comment from a little-known MP has potentially thrown it all away.

Deputy Conservative Chairman Howard Flight could not have done more damage to Mr Howard's campaign if he had been trying. And "sorry" just doesn't seem to cut it.

Mr Flight has handed Labour a nuclear propaganda weapon on precisely the issue Tony Blair has put at the heart of his campaign but which had, until now, been backfiring.

He has suggested, by implication, that his leader is not telling the whole truth.

And he has even managed to put a massive grin on the face of Labour's much-criticised campaign co-ordinator Alan Milburn.

'Downright lie'

This would all have been bad enough had it come from a minor backbencher, but Mr Flight is one of the architects of Tory economic policy - so he should know.

The credibility of the Tory proposals has been undermined, possibly terminally
His suggestion that the Tories are planning much bigger savings than already pledged, but are keeping quiet about it for fear of turning away voters, has echoes of the gaffe committed by Shadow Chancellor Oliver Letwin at the 2001 general election, when he suggested the Tories planned 20bn spending cuts.

Mr Letwin went into hiding after that remark. Mr Flight may become equally invisible over the coming weeks.

Mr Howard has probably done all he can by firing him from his job and removing the whip but this reeks of slamming the stable door after the horse has bolted.

The damage has already been done.

And Labour's decision to scrap a planned press conference in favour of concentrating on the gaffe displayed just how damaging this is to the Tories.

Just a week ago, Labour's key campaign slogan - that the Tories planned 35bn cuts - was virtually in tatters after Mr Howard branded it a downright lie.

Labour posters

This is the last thing the Tories need at the moment with the election looming
Paul Beckett, London, UK

The prime minister found himself struggling to explain how the Tory plan to spend 35bn less than Labour amounted to a cut rather than simply a smaller increase.

Most believed the sting had been effectively taken from the Labour campaign, which had been sent back to the drawing board.

Now, thanks to Mr Flight, that slogan is back in capital letters and Mr Howard will be the one struggling to explain away his sacked deputy-chairman's remarks.

And the fact is, it really doesn't matter if Mr Flight was right or not, or that the Tories have immediately insisted there are no such plans and that the errant MP does not speak for the party.

The credibility of the Tory proposals has been greatly undermined.

And Labour, rather than shying away from its "cuts" assault, will now step it up and repeat Mr Flight's remarks throughout the campaign, expected to be announced by the prime minister on 4 April.

Don't be surprised to see his words appearing on Labour posters or campaign leaflets.

And each time the Tories insist it simply isn't true, so Labour will reply along the lines of "they would say that wouldn't they".

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