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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 April, 2005, 11:59 GMT 12:59 UK
Howard's immigration dilemma
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

At the very start of the election campaign, Michael Howard warned he would not be silenced on immigration by claims he was appealing to racist or xenophobic sentiments.

Michael Howard
Mr Howard has faced fresh attacks
He has certainly been as good as his word and has once again found himself attacked on precisely those grounds - this time by members of a TV audience.

At his morning press conference, it was even suggested he had experienced an "Enoch Powell moment".

Mr Powell was sacked from the Tory frontbench 37 years ago, almost to the day, after delivering his infamous "rivers of blood" speech on immigration which was seen as inflammatory and damaging to race relations.

Now it has been claimed Mr Howard's remarks during the TV debate amounted to him suggesting that uncontrolled immigration could lead to race riots in Britain similar to those seen in Burnley and Oldham in 2001.

The Conservatives have argued that Mr Howard was simply arguing that controlled immigration would be good for community relations.

But the latest row has been fanned by suggestions there are those in the Tory party who believe Mr Howard is going too far on the immigration issue and should tone down his rhetoric.

Big issue

This may all be part of the usual rough and tumble, claim and counter claim, rebuttal and denial of an election campaign and the Tories are relatively relaxed about it.

Howard wants tough immigration controls
But it does highlight a potential dilemma faced by the Tory leader over the highly-sensitive issue of immigration.

It has been identified as one of the big issues with voters, and one which plays particularly well for the Tories.

So it is no wonder that Mr Howard wants to put it at the centre of his election campaign. And he believes he has a sensible, credible and balanced policy to deal with the issue.

It is a policy which is also seen as likely to appeal to wavering, core Tory voters.

I'm fed up with the ill-informed and politically motivated comments from all sides in this debate
Mick, Slough

The possible danger for the Tories, however, is that any failure to get the balance right, any perception that they are being too tough may just succeed in driving disillusioned Labour voters back into Tony Blair's arms.

And one of the deciding factors in this poll could be the success the parties have in bringing out their core voters.

But for now, there appears to be no appetite from the three parties for this row to descend into a fist-fight.



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