Daniel Johnson’s Election Diary, IV: Michael Howard sends a message to the Tories

[Posted 11:13 AM by Daniel Johnson]

So now Michael Howard has announced that he will resign �sooner rather than later�. After announcing this, he remarked that he wanted to give his successor as much time as possible in the job: �If we could achieve so much in 18 months, think what we could we could achieve in four years!�

But what, exactly, had Howard achieved? When he took over, his party stood at around 34 percent in the polls. In last night�s election, the Tories gained�33.5 percent.

It is true that Howard�s tenure as leader of the Conservative Party has been even shorter than those of his two predecessors, Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague. But Howard came to power by a coup d�etat, not a leadership election. He and his co-conspirators never gave Duncan Smith the chance of a full four years to mount his challenge to Tony Blair. Before plotting by his rivals destabilised Duncan Smith�s leadership in September 2003, the Tories were on 38 points and had just done well in local elections.

It is a myth that Howard relaunched the Tories with new policies that were attractive to the electorate. What he did was to strip out any policies that might have appealed to the kind of liberal middle class voters who defected to Tony Blair in 1997. As a result, by the time those voters were ready to look again at the alternatives to Blairite �New Labour� in 2005, Howard had ensured that the Tories had nothing to offer them. Most voted Liberal democrats, under the illusion that they represented some kind of middle way between Tory and Labour. (In reality, the Lib Dems have big government policies that are much more like the old Labour Party than anything Blair would endorse.)

Duncan Smith had intended to emphasize the contrast between Tory and Labour economic and social policies, but also bury the negative image of the Tories as the �nasty party�. He wanted a combination of big tax cuts to appeal to self-interest, plus �compassionate conservative� self-help policies for �the vulnerable� to appeal to middle-class altruism. Duncan Smith�s last big idea was to devolve power from central to local government and reduce the overall size of the state, now heading towards 42 percent of GDP. He also had a positive vision of Europe to contrast with the EU constitution. Above all, he was an Atlanticist, through and through. Before he could start promoting these ideas, he was deposed by means of a trumped-up �scandal� about his wife. It took months for the parliamentary commissioner to investigate, and by the time he was exonerated, he was history.

Howard offered none of this. Instead, he promised to match Labour�s spending plans and was reluctant to commit himself to lower taxes. He refused to talk about Europe at all, and sacked any of his colleagues who dared to hint at a smaller state. His big themes were supposed to be crime and immigration. But few voters believed that the Tories would do better at crime than Labour, and the anti-immigration policies alienated as many voters as they attracted.

But Howard�s biggest mistake was to suppose that he could destroy Tony Blair�s position by questioning his integrity. Even worse, Howard retreated from the staunchly pro-American and pro-war foreign policy to which Duncan Smith had adhered, disregarding mutinous backbenchers. Howard told the electorate to use their votes to �send a message to Tony Blair�. Quite apart from the fact that this wasn�t a very intelligent way to use precious votes, it also ignored the fact that his own messages to the voters on the war had been utterly confused and confusing. Even voters who believed his assurances that Blair had lied about Iraq�s weapons of mass destruction doubted whether Howard was entitled to take such a superior moral tone.

Having highlighted the character issue, Howard could not complain when his own came under the spotlight. The vicious temper is so notorious that even his wife openly jokes about it. Asked whether her husband had a �short fuse�, Sandra Howard replied: �He doesn�t have a fuse.� Her glamour (she was one of the most celebrated models of the 1960s) contrasted painfully with his dreary lawyer�s pedantry. His appeal to women (one of Blair�s strongest cards) was nil -- and, worse, he didn�t even seem to care.

Howard is not a man without qualities: he is a gifted advocate, quick on his feet and utterly determined to crush all dissent. He is not inhibited by false modesty. But his failure as a leader is likely to be compounded by his intention to change the rules of the leadership contest to replace him. The very idea that a leader should be allowed to rig the system to ensure that his own nominee is elected should be a non-starter. But Howard will probably get away with it. If he cannot now be king (by the next election he will be nearly 70), he has set his heart on being the kingmaker. And because he knows that the �Notting Hill Tories� (a liberal, privileged coterie whom he has sedulously promoted) are unlikely to be chosen by the party members, he wants to restore the exclusive right to elect the leader to the parliamentary party. This was the system that overthrew Margaret Thatcher in 1990, an act of matricide from which the party has never quite recovered.

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