Shrewd and game, but Howard still lacks the people touch
MICHAEL Howard has a problem which is not of his own making but hugely important to the fate of his leadership. He is the victim of sharply rising expectations.
The shorthand political shift of the past few months is that Tony Blair no longer looks unbeatable. He is under constant pressure on Iraq, personally drained and widely disliked in his own party and beyond it. That makes many people feel disappointed that the Leader of the Opposition does not look more poised to beat him. So a kind of heat remains on the Tories, for all Mr Blair’s worries.
Lord Tebbit’s charge that the party does not feel sufficiently inspired may be, as Oliver Letwin, the shadow chancellor, politely puts it, the view of a "lofty spectator".
Mr Howard is hardly what most people would call politically "beige" - he’s blue in tooth and claw. But there are many who might agree that there is a colourlessness about the present Conservative team. It does not seem like a fierce cohort of support for the leader, relentlessly pushing its case and questing for power. The Blair-Brown-Prescott-Mandelson machine at this stage in preparation for the 1997 election battered and nagged, fought and wheedled Labour’s way to Number 10.
In the leader’s milieu, where the culture of an election bid is forged, his team is laid back in that way well-bred young Conservative men and women tend to be: keen not to show that they are making an effort. They do not pile in behind the leader, echoing and amplifying the message. Indeed, when Mr Howard did finally decide to attack Tony Blair over his handling of the war-aftermath, the silence from his own side was deafening.
No-one doubts that Iraq will certainly have a strong impact on the local and European elections. It will depress Labour’s turnout and help to heave the party out of power in its inner-city fiefdoms. But the longer-standing battleground of Europe is likely to make just as much impact on the 10 June vote. The Conservatives are set to win and win big. But a solid advance on their (very good) showing under William Hague is threatened by the breakthrough of the anti-Europe UK Independence Party.
Strangely for a party trying to get Britain to accept the unpopular European Constitution, Labour could benefit from the UKIP’s intervention.
"Our real worry," says one former Cabinet minister and close ally of the Prime Minister, "is that we finish third in June. That would put incredible pressure on Tony and it would encourage his internal enemies to have another go at him. Now we’re praying the UKIP could save us by top-slicing the Tory vote."
Indeed, much of the UKIP’s natural appeal is to Conservatives who feel that the solidly Eurosceptic Mr Howard is a bit beige about saving Britain from the perilous inroads of European federalism. But he is already under attack from Mr Blair for saying that he would be prepared to renegotiate Britain’s European Union membership.
He cannot move much further without starting to look like the crazed Eurosceptic Tories of yesterday, too far removed from the more cautious sensibilities of those key swing voters.
Mr Howard, it should be said, is a careful judge of options and a shrewd tactician. I would not underestimate his ability to calibrate his election message and time his revelations. He is a game campaigner. But there is still something lacking. It was very noticeable, I’m afraid, in his stilted Birmingham speech on ethnic diversity on Tuesday. These are never easy speeches to get right, but there is a lot more to it than suddenly announcing that you relish the rap poetry of Benjamin Zephaniah (really, Michael?)
An instinctive political affinity with people still stubbornly evades Mr Howard. A close ally admits that the Tory leader’s connection with the electorate remained "very loose".
He does not have to be loved or even liked, but he has to mean something to us. That is not an optional extra.
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