The leader of the Conservative Party began a two-day tour of Norfolk yesterday with a keen eye on the next general election. After visiting Cromer he faced questions from the Eastern Daily Press and took in a whistlestop tour of Norwich Market. ADAM GRETTON and KEIRON PIM report. Tory leader Michael Howard yesterday declared North Norfolk as a "must win" seat at the next general election as he embarked on the first leg of his county tour. Mr Howard went on a charm offensive on his first ever trip to Cromer, meeting patients and staff at Cromer hospital and greeting shoppers and traders in the town centre.
The Conservative leader highlighted the importance of his party's plans for the National Health Service in regaining the traditionally core Tory seat of North Norfolk. He also pledged his full support behind Iain Dale, who has been charged with overturning Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb's slight majority of 483. "It is a very important area and it is a seat we need to win," he said. "We have an excellent candidate in Iain Dale but we must not take anything for granted. I am confident that if people want to get rid of a failing and discredited government then there is only one party to put in place." Mr Howard began the day at Cromer Hospital where he toured the wards and brightened up the day for some patients. "When are you taking over?" asked Alan Baxter, from North Walsham, who has a fortnightly blood transfusion at the hospital. "Very soon," replied Mr Howard. Dennis Reinman, 77, who was waiting to have his appendix removed, said he was impressed by the Tory leader and the North Norfolk prospective parliamentary candidate. "They have an uphill battle but I hope they give Tony Blair a good beating," he said. He than meet local GPs, surgeons, hospital officials and members of North Norfolk Primary Care Trust to discuss health provision in the area and the plans for a new Cromer Hospital. Speaking later in Norwich, Mr Howard later said he was impressed by the work of the area's voluntary ambulance drivers. "Something that I was very impressed by in Cromer this morning was the voluntary drivers for the regional ambulance service. "They work five days a week for modest mileage and I don't think we celebrate these volunteers enough." The Conservatives plan to give patients health passports, slash red tape and bureaucracy and commit an extra 9pc increase in the NHS in their first two years of government, if they win the next general election. Mr Howard said plans to give hospitals more independence would have prevented continued delays over the proposed £17m hospital for North Norfolk, which goes before regional health chiefs in May. "I think Cromer has an excellent hospital doing a great job for North Norfolk but it does have a great cloud of uncertainty, I find it difficult to find why the decision has taken so long to make," he said. Sue Tuck, hospital matron, said the MP was "delightful" and was "interested in the patients foremost." He later received a whistlestop tour of Cromer high street, seeing the regeneration works of the Pavilion Theatre and pier and talking to Tory supporters.