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Tory leader Howard under pressure

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Blair faces tough test in bid to be the first Labour Party leader to win a third term.
UK election
Michael Howard
Tony Blair
Great Britain

LONDON, England -- UK Conservative party leader Michael Howard was under pressure Tuesday with his party flagging in opinion polls and being attacked for his tough stand on immigration and asylum seekers.

Howard pledged to continue warning of the dangers of uncontrolled immigration after being attacked for saying he feared Britain could face more race riots.

He also accused Prime Minister Tony Blair of telling "lies" about the Conservatives over health and public spending and demanded he withdraw campaign posters and leaflets.

The ITV lunchtime news called it "Terrible Tuesday" for Howard after criticism of his immigration policies.

Channel Four news echoed the message: "Michael Howard marched out to the cameras looking cross this morning, and well he might be," reported the channel.

"With immigration still his loudest message, he's five to ten points behind Labour in the polls but insists he's right."

The headline in The Times newspaper read: "Howard faces flak as Labour stretches poll lead."

"Labour is heading for another big majority in the face of a faltering Conservative challenge," said the newspaper, talking of "the first serious sniping from the sidelines at the conduct of Michael Howard's election campaign."

Later Tuesday Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy accused Howard of refusing to take part in a "sensible" debate on immigration and of appealing to his core vote instead.

For his part, Blair rejected the Tory accusations over health and education and refused to change Labour's campaign.

Howard told the Daily Telegraph he would not change course despite the polls showing his party are struggling to make headway.

At his regular news conference Tuesday Howard said: "We clearly believe that there should be a limit on immigration, that's our view.

"I have always believed, I'm sure it's true, that good community relations and firm but fair immigration controls go hand in hand together.

"We have seen immigration triple under Mr Blair. And if people lose confidence in the system and believe it's out of control, I believe that breeds a sense of insecurity and that's damaging to good community relations."

He insisted he would continue to discuss the issue: "It's one of our five priorities and I will continue to talk about it." He denied a report that senior Tories had urged him to tone down his message on immigration. He told reporters: "No. We have had no such calls, neither to me nor to my office."

Earlier there was bad news for Howard in opinion polls in Tuesday morning's newspapers which showed Blair's Labour Party increasing its lead.

An NOP poll for The Independent put Labour on 37 percent, down one point since the previous week, with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats unchanged on 32 percent and 21 percent respectively.

A Mori poll for the Financial Times put Labour on 41 percent, the Conservatives on 31 percent and the Liberal Democrats on 21 percent.

A Populus poll for The Times put Labour on 40 percent -- up three points since the last Populus poll two weeks ago -- with the Conservatives on 31 percent, four points down, and the Liberal Democrats on 21 percent, two points up.

A large majority of voters -- 71% - said they expected another Labour victory.

  • Militants disrupted a Muslim Council of Britain press conference Tuesday, condemning the organization as "a mouthpiece" of Tony Blair and George Bush. There were chaotic scenes as a group of around 15 men, two of them masked, burst into the meeting at Central London Mosque in Regents Park, where the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) was unveiling a list of 10 questions for Muslim voters to ask parliamentary candidates.

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