Perspective: How the West Will Be Won by Howard; Michael Howard Has Been Credited with Making the Conservatives Look like Winners Again. but the Challenges He Faces Are Enormous. He Told Political Editor Jonathan Walker Why the Road to Number 10 Leads through the West Midlands
Byline: Jonathan Walker
The Midlands is on Michael Howard's mind at the moment. When he took over as Tory leader, just three months ago, his party was in a desperate state. But now, Conservative MPs have a spring in their step. They feel that voters are taking them seriously again.
And while the general elections of 1997 and 2001 were disasters for the party, next time could be different. It is even possible to imagine winning.
But the challenges are enormous. And taking back formerly 'true blue' Conservative seats such as Edgbaston and Wolverhampton South West, which the Tories lost to Labour in 1997, will be essential if Michael Howard is ever to receive the keys to Number 10.
He said: 'The West Midlands will be hugely important at the next election. It has a lot of seats which we have got to win in order to form a Government, and that is our objective.'
So will his party claim Edgbaston and Wolverhampton South West back?
'I very much hope so. That is up to the people who live in Edgbaston and who live in Wolverhampton.
'I don't presume on the way they will cast their vote. It is up to them. We are here to serve them and to offer them a credible and convincing alternative.'
A look at voting trends in Edgbaston illustrates the scale of the task. In 1997, Labour stole it with a majority of 4,842 votes.
But in 2001, they held it with a majority of 4,698. The Conservatives had made up almost no ground during Tony Blair's first term. So why are things different now?
Mr Howard said: 'Two things have happened. In 2001 there was a general feeling that Blair deserved another chance. That you couldn't really judge after four years. 'Now I think people are seeing that the promises are simply not being kept and the improvements are simply not coming through. They are certainly paying more in tax.
'So I think the disillusionment with the Government has increased very significantly since 2001.
'And I think we are now seen as a more convincing alternative. We have a range of policies which are different to those we had in 2001.
'They are more carefully tailored to the needs of people's lives than they were then, we are talking about them and explaining them, and I hope people are seeing that we are a credible alternative.'
Mr Howard is scathing of Labour's health service reforms. The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham is set to become one of the nation's first foundation hospitals, which means it will have greater independence from Whitehall.
But the Tories would go much further, he says.
'We would give every NHS hospital real freedoms, as real foundation hospitals. Not a few of them, as Labour propose, and not pale-pink imitation freedoms, because the freedoms which foundation hospitals under Labour are going to have will be very limited. 'They won't be allowed to decide who they employ, they won't be allowed to decide how much they should pay the people they employ., they won't be able to borrow as much as they would like.
'We would put in place proper foundation hospitals, which I think Tony Blair started off wanting to do, but he hasn't been allowed to do by the Labour Party and the trade unions, and by Gordon Brown.'
He added: 'There is undoubtedly a lot of money going in, no-one is arguing about that, but it isn't leading to the improvements that we all want to see.
'There has been a 37 per cent increase in the funding, and the number of treatments has only gone up by five per cent. If that happened in any private enterprise company, the shareholders would be clamouring for the head of the chief executive.'
Conservatives would also introduce a 'patient's passport' allowing people to choose which NHS hospital treated them, or to receive a subsidy on treatment in the private sector.
It would allow those who could afford it to receive treatment more quickly, he says. …