Opinion: Tories find race card at bottom of barrel

As a PR stunt, the Tories' 'immigration' launch was a spectacular success. What it won't do though is win them the election.

Conservative election strategists must have been delighted that their relatively cheap ad on immigration in The Sunday Telegraph was making such big waves. In normal circumstances, broadcasters would not bother with much coverage, but race issues are a different matter and the Tories know it. For a start, it is certain to get a big argument going and the media love nothing better than a good row, even though the Government is too scared to get involved.

Michael Howard can protest as much as he likes that this is not about race, but we all know it is. Why else would the Tory leader mention the Bradford riots when interviewed on Today?

Playing the race card happens to some extent in all election campaigns. William Hague was the last to try it and look where it got him. The problem for the Tories is that immigration and asylum have dropped well down the list of 'priority issues' for the electorate.

With unemployment at such low levels it's unlikely that immigration will become a big election issue this time round. It's still the economy, stupid.

So why did the Tories bother? The answer may be related to the front-page report in The Times this week that claimed Howard's election chief Lynton Crosby had told the Tory leader that the election is already lost.

Not much of a story, you may think, but Times correspondents Andrew Pierce and Helen Rumbelow went on to tell us that Crosby believes Howard should concentrate on a face-saving attempt to increase his strength in Parliament by 25 to 30 seats.

Crosby probably believes that by appealing to the Tory core vote with issues like immigration, Howard can deliver his face-saver.

Much to the disgust of their activists, Labour election strategists will be looking to keep well away from the immigration issue. But, when it does arise, they will be hoping to show that they can be tough too - and the Government will be helped by new statistics.

Despite Howard claiming that immigration is 'out of control' and that he wants an 'honest' debate on the issue, these statistics will show that asylum seeker numbers are falling.

In an election campaign where the opposition will get more and more desperate, don't expect much honesty - from either side.

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