Chief Reporter Paul Dale was the only journalist with Conservative Party leader Michael Howard when he met Longbridge workers in Birmingham yesterday.

Tory leader Michael Howard spent 30 minutes chatting to people at the sharp end of the MG Rover crisis - employees at the plant who face being thrown out of work if Longbridge closes.

In a carefully choreographed session, designed to raise his party's profile among marginal West Midlands seats and cash in on the Government's intense embarrassment, Mr Howard joined ten workers from the car factory at the home of Birmingham Conservative city councillor Keith Barton, himself a former shop steward at Rover.

The Tory leader was joined by Vicky Ford, his party's election candidate in Northfield, and Caroline Spelman, shadow local government spokeswoman and MP for Meriden.

After the meeting Mr Howard said he was backing attempts by the Government and the unions to get the SAIC takeover of MG Rover back on

board, but he was careful not to hold out too much hope.

While in Birmingham the Tory leader also met union leaders and held talks with Mike Whitby, the leader of Birmingham City Council.

Mr Howard said the people he met were desperately worried about what would happen to them if Longbridge folded.

He added: "I have listened to the concerns of the people at the sharp end. The people who are fearful that their jobs are going to end.

"I am deeply concerned about the consequences of what is happening at Longbridge. Some of the people I have met today, those most closely involved, simply don't know whether they will have any jobs to go to tomorrow.

"I had a useful meeting with the unions who still maintain there is a possibility of doing a deal with SAIC. I will support any sensible measures by the Government to bring about such an outcome.

"It would be unfortunate however if the uncertainty were prolonged, giving false hopes to the people so badly affected by this crisis."

Mr Howard hit out at the Department for Trade and Industry, which he said had done "too little, too late".

He added: "I can't understand why they left it for so long before getting involved. Everyone knew that this deal was being talked about a year ago.

"Everyone's negotiating position would have been much stronger a year ago. I am at a loss to understand why the Government didn't get involved at a much earlier stage."

Asked what he would do to help MG Rover if he won the General Election, Mr Howard gave no commitment.

"I don't know what can be done. I haven't seen the books, I am not sitting behind a desk with all of the relevant information.

"If there is a way of saving car manufacturing at Longbridge, if sensible measures can be taken, I will take them," he said.

He is also urging the Government to widen the remit of the MG Rover Task Force,

which holds its first meeting today, to enable the team to draw up an action plan to help traders and businesses in the Longbridge area that would be hit by the possible loss of 6,000 jobs.

Help should also be given to car dealerships affected by the crisis, he said.