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Last Updated: Friday, 22 April 2005, 15:04 GMT 16:04 UK
Howard's little pieces of paper
Analysis
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

Michael Howard clearly believes in the power of the written word.

Michael Howard

On two separate occasions during a combative interview with BBC Newsnight's Jeremy Paxman, he plunged into his jacket pocket to whip out crumpled pieces of paper figuratively fashioned, he hoped, into exocet missiles.

He may have risked looking like a 63-year old Just William - pockets full of string, corks, sticky sweets and the occasional frog.

But this was a carefully calculated stunt aimed at underlining some serious political points.

On the day Tony Blair put immigration back at the centre of the election campaign with a comprehensive attack on Tory policy and defence of his own, Mr Howard had his paper trail of rebuttals.

First, he had words from the prime minister's political guru, Roy Jenkins - the "patron saint of liberalism" as he called him - who had once spoken about the need to limit immigration.

It was a characteristically tough-talking interview for Mr Howard with the man who once famously asked him the same question 14 times.

Second, he unfolded a more recent letter from Mr Blair revealing his previous desire to find an offshore centre for processing immigrants before they arrived in Britain.

So, he suggested, when Mr Blair attacked the Conservatives' policy of setting quotas on immigration he was flying in the face of the advice of Labour's much-respected former home secretary, let alone others.

And, when the prime minister ridiculed the Tory plan for the offshore processing of immigrants, had he forgotten he had once investigated precisely the same policy?

Jeremy Paxman
Mr Paxman questioned immigration policy
This was the clearest possible signal from Mr Howard that no attack from the prime minister suggesting he was playing dangerous games with immigration was about to silence him.

Neither was he about to collapse under the weight of the ridicule being heaped onto his "fantasy island" plans to process immigrants.

Mr Blair's attack may have betrayed some fear that the issue of immigration was working to the Tories' advantage.

But it was also the closest he has ever come to accusing Mr Howard of threatening to damage race and community relations in Britain with his rhetoric

Tax increases

Mr Howard, in an unapologetic performance, was in no mood to shrink away from the issue or change either his policy or his tone.

His approach appeared to echo the leaked warning from his campaigns boss, Lynton Crosby, that the Tories should not be blown off course during difficult periods in the campaign, but stick to the programme.

Jeremy Paxman and Tony Blair
Mr Blair was asked about illegal immigration
He bridled when Mr Paxman asked him to name any country willing to act as the processing centre or to put a figure on the limit he would impose on immigration if he was elected to government.

He was also challenged over plans to force the NHS to pay half the costs of operations for patients who went private, on whether he could rule out future tax increases and why he had changed his mind on the level of spending on public services.

He also rejected a suggestion that it would take a "miracle" for him to win the general election.

It was a characteristically tough-talking interview for Mr Howard with the man who once famously asked him the same question 14 times.

And it was the last of the three interviews Mr Paxman has conducted with the party leaders.

Of the three, Mr Howard was arguably the least rattled, but neither did he go any further towards answering those key questions about his immigration policy.





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