Howard ratchets up immigration rhetoric

Conservatives Labour accused of 'pussyfooting around' as Tory leader unveils quota system plan

Michael Howard yesterday sought to put immigration at the heart of the election - despite claims from one of his former Home Office colleagues that Tory plans are "alarmist" and "deceitful".

At a rally in the west Midlands the Conservative leader claimed that the "one question" he was asked when he toured the country was why the government could not "get a grip" on the issue.

Mr Howard repeatedly emphasised to an audience of party members that he would not shirk from addressing this "taboo subject" and "chaotic system".

But even before he spoke he suffered a furious attack from former Tory immigration minister Charles Wardle, who served as a Home Office minister while Mr Howard was home secretary.

Mr Wardle attacked his former party's plans as "uncosted, unworkable and likely to make immigration and asylum problems worse, not better". Speaking at a Labour party press conference he said "it almost defies belief that Mr Howard is standing before people and presenting this as a policy proposal.

"It is the most half-baked, incoherent package imaginable. It shows he is utterly unsuited for the position of prime minister."

His attack was echoed by Charles Kennedy, who warned yesterday that immigration "requires sensitivity and responsibility. It is not an issue for political posturing."

Insisting that he was not motivated by revenge, Mr Wardle added that he was a politically neutral figure who did not speak from a Labour party script. None the less, he praised Labour's plans to deal with immigration and asylum, calling them "substantial, thought-through and likely to be effective".

That did not deter a compliant crowd of loyal Tories gathered in the car park of the bleak International Conference Centre in Telford yesterday. As their leader proposed an annual limit to immigration set by parliament, the Tories' own quota system was already in operation with the hand-picked podium audience, who formed another TV-friendly backdrop to his speech.

Accusing Tony Blair of wanting to "pussyfoot around" the immigration issue, the Tory leader reiterated the "common sense" messages of his party's poster campaign that has suggested "it's not racist to impose limits on immigration" and has rattled Labour in marginal seats across Britain.

"Some people say I shouldn't talk about difficult issues like the abuse of our asylum system or those Travellers who stick two fingers up to the law. But we can't make Britain a better place if we don't discuss difficult issues," Mr Howard said. "I'm not prepared to appease special interest groups because I believe passionately in fair play."

Acknowledging that his father was an immigrant, Mr Howard briefly got personal. "Some commentators have accused me of being a traitor to my immigrant roots for raising this issue at all," he said. "They wrongly assume that people from immigrant families can have no possible interest in wanting to see immigration controlled.

"But I've lost count of the times that British people from ethnic backgrounds have told me that firm but fair immigration controls are essential for good community relations."

The only new feature of the afternoon was the election debut of the Tory battle bus, emblazoned with "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" The Telford rally was an unconvincing riposte to the end of the era of the battle bus: the all-white Tory coach drove all of 200 yards from car park six, where Mr Howard landed in his helicopter, to the (almost all-white) Tory crowd by the main entrance.

After finishing their flasks of tea in their Rovers, 600 mostly elderly Tory members listened to their leader's call for "fair play" on this "no-go area for political debate".

The Tory leader stuck closely to his script in a speech that opened and closed with the obligatory standing ovation and a 90-second handshake tour of the hall.

Sensing they are back in the race, the Conservative faithful also stuck closely to the script, but admitted Mr Howard lacked the panache of Margaret Thatcher and, dare they say it, Mr Blair.

"People are concerned about immigration," said audience member Nick Richards. "It has to be discussed and dealt with properly.

"Blair and Margaret Thatcher have got that sort of flair, but Mr Howard comes across as solid and someone you can trust, with a good track record on crime."

Local Tories identified with Mr Howard's self-styled mission to say what he claims has been unsayable.

"I find him a very honourable man," said Elaine Weston. "He does talk a lot of sense and unfortunately people will not agree with him because he's honest about immigration. I've spoken to a lot of people and they all say this political correctness has brought on these problems."

Accusing Mr Blair of presiding over a tripling of immigration, Mr Howard raised the spectre of the population increasing by 5 million over the next 30 years due to immigration.

"Someone has to stand up and say something," he said. "Our communities simply can't successfully absorb newcomers at this rate."

To gasps from the Tory faithful, he said local council spending on asylum support had risen from £13m in 1997 to £398m this year. Mr Howard also suggested that immigration officers were turning a blind eye to immigrants at ports to keep the official asylum figures down.

This "chaotic system" was abused by "illegal immigrants" who "know how to work [it]" and by those who "trick their way into our country", the Tory leader said.

A dedicated Border Control Police, 24-hour security at ports and an Australian-style points system for skilled migrants would "substantially reduce the number of people coming to the UK", Mr Howard said, before shaking the hands of those loyalists reconvened for the "exit" shot.

Patrick Barkham and Patrick Wintour Monday April 11, 2005 Guardian © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

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