Conservative leader Michael Howard yesterday heavily criticised Tony Blair's handling of the demise of MG Rover.

Mr Howard, speaking on a visit to the marginal Worcestershire seat of Redditch, said the Prime Minister had "backed the wrong horse" in supporting the Phoenix bid in


He also criticised the late response from the Government in its attempts to secure a deal between the Chinese and the Birmingham car manufacturer.

Mr Howard spoke to The Birmingham Post during a visit to the Treetops Housing Development in Redditch.

Experts claim Jacqui Smith had a fight on her hands to defend her 2,484 majority even before the Rover crisis. However, Mr Howard clearly intends to capitalise on the disaffection in the constituencies that surround the Longbridge car plant.

He said: "It is for people themselves to decide about Labour's conduct during the Rover situation but I do think it is looking likely that Labour backed the wrong horse.

"It is now clear that if the Alchemy bid had been accepted the workers would have got £50,000 redundancy payment and now they would be lucky to get a fraction of that.

"It also looks like Gordon Brown went to China far too late. They are supposed to have all these units in his department that monitor things like this.

"But if that is so why was Mr Brown not in China earlier when MG Rover's bargaining power was much greater."

Mr Howard said he came to Birmingham on the day that Longbridge collapsed to express his "despair" with workers who had given decades of service to the company.

The Tory leader yesterday met many young families in a show home at the Redditch housing development.

Earlier, he announced that the Conservatives would raise the stamp duty threshold on property sales from Labour's new figure of £120,000 to £250,000.

This would free more than half a million homebuyers a year from stamp duty and would mean that more than 80 per cent of home purchases would attract no stamp duty at all.

Mr Howard said the families he met were attracted by the cut which, he says, will help them get a foot on the property ladder.

Labour protesters dressed as workmen had other cuts in mind as they demonstrated on the edge of the site with placards claiming a Tory victory would damage public services.

Safely inside the show home, Mr Howard faced disturbances of another kind as 22-month-old Josh Kelso performed for the cameras.

The youngster repeatedly climbed on the table as Mr Howard attempted to explain his policies to his parents Penny and Brandon.

However, the Tory leader was in fighting mood and rejected Mr Blair's claims of success on crime.

"I gather Mr Blair has been patting himself on the back today over these new crime figures. The truth is that crime has gone up by 15 per cent since 1998," Mr Howard said.

"Violent crime has gone up much more. What people want I think is not more talk from Mr Blair but action.

"That is what a Conservative government will deliver. More police, less paperwork, tougher sentences."