MICHAEL Howard chose to make his strong speech on law and order yesterday in Middlesbrough. He flew there from his holiday abroad in order to make the speech in the town which elected its former “zero tolerance” police officer Ray Mallon as mayor a couple of years ago.

Has Mr Howard at last found in law and order the window of opportunity through which he can see the chance of defeating Tony Blair at the general election? It has been a favourite riposte of the Prime Minister at Question Time in the House of Commons to remind Mr Howard of his reputation as a hard man when he was at the Home Office.

But now, after yesterday's speech, Mr Howard can say, “Yes, I took a tough line then and I will take it again because it is urgently needed.” Whether a breakthrough with the public on this single issue would be enough to win the election must be doubtful; but whereas the Conservatives are stymied by the Government on almost all other public service issues, they might just find the opportunity they need in “zero tolerance” - Mr Howard used the phrase yesterday - on law and order.

MUCH will be made of Mr Howard's undertaking to drop the recommendation in the Macpherson report (into Stephen Lawrence's death) that anyone stopped by the police should be given a receipt detailing their race and the reason for being questioned. There have been huge increases, more than 300 per cent, in “stop-and-searches” of Asian and black people since 2001. Mr Howard thinks the receipts and their later analyses waste the time of the police. Has he found the public mood on this issue?


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