Conservative leader Michael Howard was in Birmingham yesterday to launch his party's new manifesto before local Tory activists and candidates.

He told the party faithful that Tony Blair was "already secretly grinning about the prospect of a third victory".

He delivered a speech at the International Convention Centre after Coun Deirdre Alden, Tory candidate for the marginal Edgbaston constituency, hailed him as a leader who will "roll up his sleeves and act to sort out the country's problems".

Mr Howard said: "Some people say I shouldn't talk about difficult issues like the abuse of our asylum system and those travellers who stick two fingers up to the law.

"But we cannot make Britain a better place if we sweep difficult issues under the carpet. Everyone knows you won't fix a problem if you aren't even prepared to discuss it."

" Three years ago my mother-in-law died from an infection she picked up in hospital."

Dozens of candidates and activists greeted Mr Howard on his arrival at the ICC.

Labour supporters brandishing a life-size cut-out of the Tory leader with a placard reading "£35 billion cuts" were also waiting for him.

However, inside Mr Howard said the Tories would cut back on wasteful spending such as strategic health authorities, unelected regional assemblies, and the New Deal.

"These are tough decisions. I make no apology for that," he said. "Leadership isn't about doing what's easy. It's about doing what's right."