Michael Howard unveiled a £10 million plan to fight the MRSA superbug as he visited the West Midlands yesterday - but scored an own goal when he broke hygiene rules on a hospital visit intended to highlight his plans.

The Conservative leader pledged to expand a revolutionary new procedure for identifying MRSA cases, developed by a Birmingham consultant, to hospitals across the country.

He was attending a seminar on health policy at the National Motorcycle Museum in Solihull.

But earlier he failed to follow basic procedures aimed at halting the spread of MRSA on a visit to London's National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery.

During his visit to Solihull Mr Howard said he was " mortified" by the error.

"I went to a hospital earlier on. I must have washed my hands four times," he said.

"But I think I missed out washing them between one patient and another and I should not have done that. I was mortified when it was pointed out."

The new swab test can detect the presence of MRSA within hours rather than days, allowing hospitals to determine the source of the infection.

It was developed by Peter Hawker, a consultant at Birmingham Heartlands & Solihull NHS Trust.

The Government has already introduced the procedure at Birmingham's Heartlands Hospital and University College London Hospitals NHS Trust as pilot schemes.

But Mr Howard said it should be expanded across the country immediately, as part of a ten-point Tory action plan to clean up hospitals.

The proposals also include training for all health and social care staff on controlling infections, giving matrons and senior nurses the power to ensure wards are clean, and creating mobile cleaning teams which can be sent wherever there is a problem.

He said: "In the fourth richest country in the world, more people die from infections they've picked up in hospitals than they do on our roads."

He said the Conservative plan had at its heart "a commitment to give power to doctors, nurses and local professionals."

The Tory leader went on: "We'll bring back matrons - giving them the power to shut hospital wards and operating theatres that are infected with the superbug if they think that is what's needed."

Mr Howard said the Conservatives would publish all MRSA infection rate data by clinical departments, so that people were aware of the dangers they faced and the choices they could make.

Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley, also in Solihull, accused the Government of not giving the MRSA problem "anything approaching the action and the urgency it requires".

But Health Secretary John Reid said Labour was already tackling MRSA.

He said: "The Tory Government got rid of matron. Now they want matron back. They haven't noticed Labour has already done that. There are now over 3,000 matrons in the NHS.

"The Tories phased out front-line nurses' control of cleaning by enforced contracting-out of cleaning services. Now they want more power to the front line.

"Labour has already given back power to the front line through the Matron's Charter and the involvement of nurses in drawing up cleaning contracts.

"The Tories slashed cleaning services and provision. Now they want more cleaning. Labour has already outlawed cheap cleaning contracts.

"The Tory Government refused to collect details of MRSA cases. Now they want to do just that."

Liberal Democrat Shadow Health Secretary Paul Burstow said: "What the Conservatives really need to say is sorry - sorry that they failed to bring back matron. Sorry that MRSA rates rocketed in the nineties, and that they failed to collect proper information on hospital infections."