Tories hope Howard's way will work this time

 

The Tories have just got smart and British politics have just got interesting, writes Frank Millar, London Editor

This was the week when the Conservatives - for so long the "Stupid Party" - suddenly got smart. Or sufficiently desperate, according to your prejudice.

And prejudice aplenty will follow Michael Howard's every step toward his predicted coronation as undisputed ruler of a new, inclusive, generous, tolerant and internationalist Conservative Party; a party magically born within hours of Wednesday's public execution of King Duncan Smith.

Behold "Count Dracula" as the Daily Mirror described him on Thursday; he of "Transylvanian heritage" as Jeremy Paxman remarked; a dangerous man, according to Ann Widdecombe, the former prisons minister who first divined "something of the night" about him.

No matter that Ms Widdecombe is among the sufficiently desperate that even she would now embrace him.

Her memorable assassination attempt during the last leadership battle has fed and fuelled the perception of the former Home Secretary as a cold, calculating, ruthless machine politician.

Can the men, women and children of Britain sleep safe in their beds with such a monster on the prowl? Has the Tory Party finally gone off its head?

The always splendid and challenging Polly Toynbee certainly thinks so.

To the suggestion that the Conservatives congratulate themselves on rediscovering an appetite for power and the attendant virtues of common sense, unity and discipline, she declared in yesterday's Guardian: "This is one of those moments of collective madness, the same craziness that seized much of the commentariat after Iain Duncan Smith's catastrophically weird bellowing party conference speech."

Here at least is a reminder that the Conservatives got one thing right this week, with their decision to switch off "the quiet man".

That IDS performance surely ranked as the worst in living memory - a compelling invitation to colleagues to bring an end to the mistake their grassroots supporters had made two long years before.

However, Ms Toynbee is right and hardly alone in diagnosing the image problem which attends Mr Howard, seemingly unstoppable now after Kenneth Clarke's strong endorsement yesterday.

A hard man of the Thatcher years, the polls show him still one of the most unpopular men in British politics. Even on Thursday, at the Saatchi gallery event to declare his candidacy, he was asked how he responded to suggestions that he comes with a lot of baggage and is seen, in effect, as a pretty smarmy, greasy sort of guy.

Mr Howard turned this with a soft, humorous touch, saying it had been "a very generous question" before promptly moving on. However he will inevitably be pulled back to confront these questions of perception.

He had an easy ride on Thursday, in conditions he will not presume to find when he comes to talk to the likes of Mr Paxman and John Humphreys.

In part he will do so with the personal charm, grace and courtesy to which all who know him testify. It is still to be crossed of course, but the good news for Tory doubters is that the gulf is between the perception and reality.

In making that journey, Mr Howard will be revealing a lot more about himself than the British public currently thinks it knows.

He will also be assisted by a diverse group of friends and admirers - like Lord (Norman) Lamont and Mr John Gummer and, he hopes, Kenneth Clarke - who know the complexity of a man of whom the public still does not have the measure.

His most urgent need is to defuse the "something of the night" charge. One admirer thinks his wife Sandra, a former sixties model, antidote enough. She has described her husband as "an extraordinarily romantic man". It is said that his reputed ruthlessness was never more in evidence than when Mr Howard pursued her, sending her a copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night after their first meeting.

Yet no matter how tender the private man, there persists this suggestion of something sinister.

Some newly converted Howardites are already fuming, not unreasonably observing that had Mr Paxman made that reference to the "Transylvanian heritage" of a Labour politician, it might well have been considered grossly offensive and way beyond reasonable comment. However here Mr Howard is already showing evidence of the skills of both the seasoned politician and the forensic lawyer.

Asked about his "night" problem by Rachel Sylvester in yesterday's Daily Telegraph, Mr Howard replied: "That's a phrase. I don't know what it means, do you?"

It's a good question and one which might well discomfit media tormentors as the public comes increasingly to understand the sensitivity of many British Jews to a phrase which they think - intentionally or otherwise - contains more than a hint of anti- Semitism.

If Mr Howard fulfils Lord Lamont's generous-if-wild prediction, this Welsh-born son of Romanian immigrants would become Britain's first non- baptised-Protestant prime minister.

Yet again it is falling to the Conservative Party to break the mould, for the party which gave Britain its first woman prime minister is now seemingly set to open the way for the first practising member of the Jewish faith to lead one of the main political parties.

The exciting news (and it is, surely, exciting news for people of all political affiliations and none?) that the Tories are looking to a leader from an ethnic minority should prove a powerful help to Mr Howard in countering that caricature of a hopelessly irreformable, extreme right-wing, Little England Europhobe.

It is that extreme right-wing label which presents Mr Howard with his biggest political challenge.

Having won Mr Clarke's backing, Mr Howard will now have to persuade the public at large that there is not - in the phrase coined by ITN's excellent political editor Nick Robinson - just a touch too much of "the right right" about him.

That Mr Howard hails from the right is hardly in dispute, yet on Thursday he promised to lead his party from its centre. The speed with which a majority of Conservative MPs lined up behind his leadership bid fuelled suspicions of a fair amount of behind-the-scenes pre-planning ahead of Wednesday's confidence vote. However, if commentators could understand that, they were left wondering precisely when Mr Howard had reinvented himself.

Certainly he has not been on a personal journey of discovery following the fashion of Michael Portillo. However there are some small tell-tale signs that Mr Howard might have been anticipating his moment, even while maintaining scrupulous loyalty to Mr Duncan Smith and resolutely refusing to take any hand in the plot against him.

When IDS tried to boost his pre- conference position with the promise of a tax-cutting agenda, shadow chancellor Howard nodded toward the principle while refusing to bind himself with any specific commitments.

He did the same on Thursday, saying he would not be afraid to make the case for lower taxes while insisting: "We will be responsible. Not for us reckless pledges that mortgage Britain's future. We need to repair Britain's mortgaged public finances and to respond to the crying need for urgent reform of our public services."

This is prudent. The middle- classes are being hit by the Blair government's rising tax take and increasingly doubtful that higher spending equals better services. However it is not clear that they are yet ready for a radical departure from the principle that those services be state-funded and provided.

There was further reassurance for the modernisers when Mr Howard claimed co-ownership of the attractive new policy initiatives recently developed under Mr Duncan Smith - for health and education "passports" empowering patients and parents and promising to reduce the role of the state.

Also, whether intentionally or otherwise, Mr Howard may have found a neat, perfectly respectable, and conservative way to end his party's long and damaging obsession with sex, "family values" and "alternative" lifestyles.

While the traditionalistsmay not like it, Mr Howard has apparently softened his position on social values and no longer wishes to see marriage rewarded through the tax system. This could spell a pragmatic end to an issue which has tormented the Tories while alienating vast numbers of voters for whom "family" is important but does not mean conformity to a prescribed Tory "norm". Ever so quietly, therefore, a different Michael Howard begins to emerge - and a potentially more convincing one, for he would hardly be so if he suddenly did a Portillo.

It remains to be seen if the talented and charismatic Mr Portillo can be persuaded to join a new shadow cabinet of "all the talents" or, indeed, whether Mr Howard might consider him too divisive a figure and decide not to ask him. However, others from the party's modernising tendency and the traditional left are expected to resume front-line positions, so giving a further boost to the long- overdue Tory challenge to Labour.

The Tories hardly needed Mr Howard's reminder that they have a mountain to climb and are still "only in the foothills" of their ascent, but with Mr Clarke making that coronation almost inevitable now, at least they need fear no further routine embarrassment, knowing that that challenge will be led by a man Tony Blair respects, and fears.

Put prejudice aside. The Tories have just got smart and British politics have just got interesting.