OPINION: CHARLIE WHELAN - Howard's vacuous statement won't wash

Tony Blair's PR team might have wanted us to believe his visit to Basra was a 'surprise', but when Radio Five Live took in the Prime Minister's speech to the troops, listeners were not fooled, as our emails revealed.

'How come Andrew Marr was with Blair if it was a surprise?' was one cynical question.

As photo opportunities go, this was about as good as they get. Even the Daily Mail admitted Blair had every right to be there, though I shudder to think what it would have said if he'd done a 'Thatcher' and rode on a tank in full battle dress. The PM even had a brand new soundbite for us: British troops were 'pioneers of soldiering in the 21st century', he revealed. The phrase was widely used by the media, getting Blair off to a flying start in 2004.

Tory leader Michael Howard has no war wins to boast about and still has the problem of trying to convince the electorate he's moved on from that nasty Thatcherite past. Maurice Saatchi came up with the idea - though not a new one - of producing a personal statement of the leader's beliefs.

As a PR stunt it worked well; one advert in The Times produced acres of free news coverage, much of it positive. I loved the irony of the man responsible for the most negative political campaigning in British history crowing about having a 'positive' message.

Howard told us we all want to be healthy, wealthy and happy. I fully expected him to tell us he believed in Santa too. His statement was vacuous and bland; even worse, someone has convinced him he needs to be presidential, like Blair. Using 'I' 17 times is not what the British public wants; it has had enough of that from Basra's 'surprise' visitor. Howard may be a good Commons performer but he is not the Tories' best selling point, and Saatchi should know it. He is no doubt swayed by his experience in turning round Thatcher's image, but Howard is no Thatcher.

It is widely believed that Howard will savage Blair over the Hutton report on the death of Dr David Kelly. If I was a Tory spin doctor, I wouldn't be talking this up as much as they appear to be. Expectations are crucial in politics; they are too high for Michael Howard.

It is easy to forget, too, that Tony Blair won't just lie down and die over Hutton. His team has been working at least as hard as the Tories, and they are better at it. Blair will also win the day over top-up fees, now he has the support of Chancellor Brown. The pressure will then be on the Tories to say what they intend to do.

One final pressure on the new Tory leader will be what he proposes to do should he lose the next election, which he surely will. Once the electorate realises Howard is only a stop-gap leader, life will be more difficult for him. It will get even worse when Tory MPs resume their leadership plotting.

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