RHODRI MORGAN was accused by the Tories of being crass and insensitive last night after he attacked Michael Howard for "hiding behind" his mother-in-law's death from a superbug to tell lies about MRSA infections.
The First Minister attacked the Tory leader's drive for cleaner hospitals as Mr Howard campaigned in Wales.
In an interview with political website ePolitix.com, Mr Morgan said, "There is this absurd Conservative campaign about MRSA which is simply about telling lies to the British people about MRSA levels.
"It is pure scaremongering without a shred of scientific evidence behind it. Michael Howard doesn't understand anything about MRSA at all, and whenever he is challenged about it all he does is hide behind the fact that Sandra Paul's mother died of MRSA. That is not a substitute for scientific evidence. It does not entitle Michael Howard to talk unscientific piffle about MRSA, while trying to scare Welsh patients from going into hospital to have their treatments."
Mr Morgan also suggested that it was the Conservatives who had allowed superbug infections to rocket, and that Labour was still dealing with that legacy.
"MRSA levels in Wales are low despite us having inherited a very difficult situation from the Conservatives, with this superbug strain of MRSA - the so-called epidemic strain in the mid-1990s. We have had to cope with that and we are coping with that very well in Wales," Mr Morgan said.
The leader of Welsh Labour went on, "All they are doing is scaremongering with these big poster adverts in marginal seats saying we had 500 cases of MRSA last year. They are simply wrong.
"They have been caught out lying with these wildly inaccurate figures. They seem to think they can demonstrate scientifically that a bit of fluff in the corner has something to do with inadequate cleaning; it hasn't. They've been challenged and they can't provide the evidence."
The First Minister said Mr Howard's preoccupation with bringing back matrons was "retro-fetishism, which seems to appeal to a lot of public school boys for reasons I don't understand".
He added, "Michael Howard is setting himself up as the great arbiter of truth and he will be judged by the same standards, and the fact he has to apologise for these wildly inaccurate MRSA figures, such as in Conwy and Clwyd West, shows he is a stranger to the truth."
Michael Howard declined to respond to Mr Morgan's attack last night, but Conservative Party co-chairman Liam Fox said, "It is such a shame that Labour Ministers stoop to such personal attacks in a desperate attempt to divert attention from the fact that they have no policies to deal with the real problems people face such as MRSA."
Tory AM Jonathan Morgan, the party's candidate in Cardiff North, said, "Mr Blair must immediately distance himself from the First Minister and disown these crass, insensitive comments."
He said Rhodri Morgan's words would be viewed by right-minded people as "appalling and disgraceful".
And he went on, "The First Minister has plunged to a new low with these comments. We are used to Rhodri Morgan making an idiot of himself but this is just one step too far.
"I am sick and tired of the damage he is doing to Welsh politics.
"He should publicly apologise to Michael Howard and the Conservative Party.
"If Rhodri Morgan wants to engage in political debate, then we are happy to do that. However, it is disgraceful to make comments of this sort."
Alun Cairns, another Tory AM who is contesting the Vale of Glamorgan seat, said, "These are outrageous comments and all we have come to expect from the First Minister. I would call on the Prime Minister to distance himself from such underhand comments."
A Plaid Cymru spokesman said, "Mr Morgan cannot hide behind personal insults. This is just another New Labour tactic to divert attention away from the serious problems in our health service."
He said there were 114,000 more people on waiting lists than when New Labour took control of the health service in 1997.
"Numerous independent reports have highlighted deficiencies in New Labour's spending on health. Over 500 NHS beds have been lost. Groups that represent nurses and doctors have expressed their grave concerns about the health service. It's time that New Labour stopped their childish behaviour and actually put their minds to solving the serious problems facing Wales."
Last night, Mr Morgan was unapologetic.
His spokeswoman said, "Michael Howard can't have it both ways. He has repeatedly referred to his mother-in-law's death during interviews and speeches since he became Tory leader in November 2003."