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New Tory leader installed, sees challenges for the party

LONDON -- Installed unopposed as leader of the Conservative Party, Michael Howard immediately reminded supporters yesterday of the hard battles ahead to topple Prime Minister Tony Blair's government.

Howard made his first public appearance as party leader in one of the many districts where the once-mighty Tories were buried in Labor landslides in 1997 and 2001.

"Our task is to be once again a credible and appealing alternative government," the Cambridge-educated lawyer told a news conference in Putney, a former Tory seat in southwest London captured by Blair's Labor Party six years ago.

"We are a first-class country with second-class public services. It isn't good enough, and it's our challenge to put it right," added Howard, drawing the battle lines for the next national election, which must be held by 2006.

The Conservative Party, which dominated British politics for most of the 20th century, has failed to recover from a humiliating election defeat in 1997, which swept it from office after 18 years in power.

Although still relatively strong in rural areas, the party has struggled to find a foothold in Britain's cities where Labor dominates -- something Howard wants to change.

He said Putney, held by a slim Labor majority of less than 3,000 votes, was a key urban seat "where the Conservatives have to start to win again."

Senior Tories hope their witty and articulate new leader, who stood unopposed to succeed Iain Duncan Smith, will unite the fractious party and help it claw its way back to power.

The party has been wracked by internal feuds ever since Margaret Thatcher was deposed as prime minister in 1990, and continues to trail Labor in opinion polls -- despite Blair's difficulties over an unpopular war in Iraq and discontent over domestic policy.

Howard has promised to lead the party, seen by many as too right wing and out of touch, from the center in the hope of winning back voters who jumped ship to Labor in 1997. Labor was traditionally a blue-collar, working-class party, but under Blair it adopted many of the Tory's free market principles and courted big business and the middle class.

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