'HOWARD GOES ON ELECTION OFFENSIVE'
By David Hencke, Westminster Correspondent
Guardian – 5 January 2005
The Tories have seized on the launch of the government's Freedom of Information Act as a new stick with which to beat Tony Blair, by asking difficult questions yesterday on populist election issues such as immigration, exam standards, the use of speed cameras and the London congestion charge.
It came as they stepped up campaigning for the expected General Election in May with Michael Howard taking to the stump to promote his new manifesto in the Labour marginal of Wellingborough in Northamptonshire.
The party used its "front bench terrier", Julian Lewis, the shadow Cabinet Office spokesman, to table 120 "embarrassing" requests to Whitehall. Among them were why the government changed its mind on having a euro referendum; a spate of questions on waste in current defence contracts; secret incentives from Britain to encourage Turkey to join the EU; and who leaked Peter Mandelson's home loan to the press.
Other targets included internal discussions on the new exam system; the cost of the dispute between Ken Livingstone and Gordon Brown over the introduction of private finance for the tube; confidential Whitehall assessments on the effectiveness of speed cameras; and secret letters between Mr Blair's office and other Whitehall departments on a compromise over the foxhunting ban.
The initiative came a day after Mr Howard released the first part of the Tory election manifesto, which aims to bring the "forgotten majority" back into the fold by promising traditional Tory policies, plus freedom for doctors, nurses and teachers to operate without state interference.
Yesterday Mr Howard told 150 Tory loyalists that these people had been
"taken for granted by Mr Blair. He asked them to trust him and, when they did, he let them down. For the last seven and a half years their only reward has been to pay higher taxes."