Conservative Commentary
"the blogger whose youthful effusions have won him bookmarks all over Whitehall ... horribly compelling" - The Guardian
Great Weblogs
The Enemy Within

Most recent posts ...

Monday, November 24, 2003
Thoughts on Michael Howard

Pondering Mr Howard's first couple of weeks as Conservative leader, it struck me that his ascent to the position confirmed one well-told tale about politics, and refuted another.

What Michael Howard's leadership confirms is the long history of the Conservatives choosing as their chief someone who, even a short time before, very few would have predicted would be holding the position. The last time anyone fulfilled most expectations in becoming Tory leader must be Anthony Eden in 1955.

In recent decades, everyone who has held the position would have seemed a far out possibility just a couple of years before. Who would have guessed in 1973 that unpopular Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher would soon be Conservative Leader, and would take the party into the 1990s? The only person who predicted John Major's ascent in advance was Norman Tebbit in 1987, an endorsement withdrawn not long afterwards. Certainly few in 1988 were predicting the heights the Treasury Chief Secretary soon reached. William Hague in 1995? He was only just getting used to being Welsh Secretary. Iain Duncan Smith in 1999? Iain Duncan Who? And finally Michael Howard in 2001. Howard's promotion even to Shadow Chancellor was seen as a backwards step. No one realistically imagined he would be Leader of the Opposition in a matter of months. But once again expectations were confounded. In the uncertain business that politics is, it seems as firm a rule as one can find that Tory leaders emerge suddenly, and from nowhere. Don't be at all surprised if Michael Howard's successor is someone who currently is barely a household name in his own household.

What Howard's ascent refutes is the cynical claim that in modern politics the House of Commons matters not a jot. Discussing the leadership last month at a meeting with John O'Sullivan (former National Review editor and special advisor to Mrs Thatcher) and some other bloggers, it was noted how well Michael Howard had performed in the House. This was swiftly dismissed as not mattering at all. O'Sullivan and I interjected in unison that it mattered very much to MPs. And so it turned out. Michael Howard's position and reputation today are built to an enormous degree on the skill and power of his performances at the despatch box against Gordon Brown. It was this factor above all which turned him from a voice of the past to the man Tory MPs were able to back unanimously as their new leader. The House of Commons may rarely play a major part in the lives of ordinary Britons, but in cases like this - as with Lord Howe's resignation speech - its effects can be extremely decisive.

Finally, it is significant that the fury expected from Tory activists denied a say on the leadership has not surfaced, nor even shown any real signs of existing at all. I predicted this the day after IDS was deposed.

All indications so far are that Michael Howard will be the only contender, ensuring that MPs can 'crown' him leader that very day. Some say members across the country will be angered to have been denied a say in who should lead next. I do not believe this. My experience of the Conservative Party grassroots is overwhelming one of exasperation at the infighting at the top and the harm done to the Tory cause in every local constituency and borough by constant press reports of infighting. If we can have even a full leadership contest without any of this then I think the members will by a huge majority be relieved. They won't denounce Tory MPs for removing their right to put an 'X' in a box: they will recognise instead a whiff of that determination for unity that ensured the Conservatives were the natural party of government in this country for such a large chunk of recent history.

What better testament to this could there be than the wonderful news of 6,000 people who have joined or rejoined the party in the short time since Mr Howard took over?

This is a leadership that is succeeding and a Conservative Party that is going places again.

Great Sites
Tory Party
Reading ...