Something of the charmer about him

Whatever the name of the dark-suited man smiling in their midst, the throng of children in the playground of Calverley Parkside Primary School, Leeds, cheer and wave as though ice-cream had just been invented.

Further back, on the edge of the crowd, earnest young women with long hair and posh voices murmur constantly into their mobile phones. They wear their heavyweight degrees in politics and economics as lightly as their abbreviated, summery skirts. They are animated, ambitious, and tirelessly enthusiastic. Their assignment: to keep this packed schedule running smoothly and thus assist in the substantial task of persuading the British public that any dissatisfaction they may feel with the present government is best translated into a vote for the Conservatives. That’s the new, touchy-feely Tories, complete with their new (but reassuringly familiar) leader, all of them now striving to sing their own version of that old favourite, Things Can Only Get Better.

The problem is, things seem to be pretty good already in Leeds. Or so several local journalists suggest as they board the striking red, white and blue campaign bus to question Howard. He attempts to correct that illusion immediately. Education in the area so reprehensibly mismanaged, it had to be wrestled from the hands of the council; worse services for more money under Labour councils; crime rising etc, etc. He bats each question back with the ease of a test match cricketer playing on a village green. There is no Jeremy Paxman here to hammer drill his composure with relentless antagonism, just the gentle waltz of quintessential British politeness: you say black, I say white; we’ll both nod, shake hands, then leave completely unaffected by the exchange.

The last interviewer proffers his thanks, and the bus - with its eerily opaque windows - noses back into the traffic with a theatrical hiss of compressed air. The perfect machina for this particular Deus’s exit. Michael Howard leans back in his seat, his expression unreadable. He is the sort of person who has become more, rather than less, attractive with age. The "tightly rolled umbrella of a man", sketch writer Matthew Parris observed in the 1990s, has unfurled just a little, his intelligence written more deeply in his 62-year-old face and his lean waistline more admirable. He is plainly dressed in a slightly shiny navy suit to which neither Hugo Boss nor Savile Row would stake claim; a lavender shirt and a lilac patterned tie. Three other Tory aides are also wearing lilac, which makes one wonder if it has been declared the new softer, more approachable colour for the new, softer more approachable party.

Not that this is a phrase, or even a thought, that would ever be expressed by Howard himself. When asked how he intended to manage the "re-branding" of the party, he claimed somewhat disingenuously that he had no idea what people meant by that. A careful look in the mirror might give him a hint. For Michael Howard seems to have acquired a benign dose of Rio Park syndrome. The Rio Park is the hotel in Benidorm where, years ago, Europe’s first outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease claimed several lives. The owners thought they would have to rename the hotel if they were to detach it from this unfortunate association. But the summer after the outbreak, bookings increased. Why? People recognised the name as familiar, but could no longer remember why.

Hence Ann Widdecombe’s jibe that he has "something of the night" about him has, with the passage of a few years, taken on a distinct glamour. It has transformed from pejorative to evocative and now hovers like a smoky trail of jazz, or an advertisement for L’Heure Bleu perfume, bathed in shadowy sophistication, with just a hint of danger. As a Church of Scotland minister once naively asked his congregation: who wants to be fumbling around in the dark with the foolish virgins, when they could enjoy the bright light supplied by the wise virgins? The answer, which neither the minister nor Ann Widdecombe would easily comprehend, is - almost all of us.

Last year Queen of Mean Anne Robinson quipped that the trouble with the Tory party was that, with one or two exceptions, there was no-one she would wish to go to bed with. A gossip column tussle ensued to cite Michael Howard as one of the exceptions. The (then) owl-spectacled, Draconian former Home Secretary had been something of a ladies’ man in his Cambridge youth, by all accounts. And suddenly, these accounts have distinct cachet. As do the details of his rose-strewn, tireless wooing of Sandra Paul, the Vogue model who has been his wife for the last 28 years, but who was married to her third husband when they first met at a charity ball in the 1970s. He sent her a copy of Tender Is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald the day after they met and dozens of imploring letters thereafter. He was cited as co-respondent in her subsequent divorce - not the sort of thing normally considered a recommendation within the Tory party.

But times do change and if analysts declare that images of US presidential candidate John Kerry speeding up the Mekong delta to the blaring rhythms of the Doors quickens the pulse of the baby boom generation, and Tony Blair cherishes his brief stint in a university rock band as proof of his universal appeal, then suddenly Michael Howard’s romantic past is an appropriate subject for celebration.

Howard may admit, austerely to journalist Dominic Lawson, "The way in which the country has changed was symbolised by its reaction to the death of Diana," and that one of the key things that people (like him) have to realise is that "most people in our country are not interested in politics, are not interested in politicians, do not wake up every morning to the dulcet tones of Mr Humphrys and Mr Naughtie, don’t watch Prime Minister’s Question Time on television... they are not interested in those things." But how, then, does a man like Howard capture hearts, minds and votes? In a nation sold on reality television, celebrity and the constant confessional, where women outnumber men by two per cent, how can a fastidious intellectual specifically woo the crucial female voter?

Howard gives a polished politician’s response. "On the whole, I think that most people in Britain are interested in the same sort of things," he says. "Having decent health care, decent education, feeling safe on the streets. All those things apply to everyone, young or old, male or female.

"The trouble is, I don’t think people trust politicians any more. That is one of the sad consequences of disillusionment with the Blair government. People feel badly let down because they had such high hopes. So they have lost faith in the ability of politicians to make a difference. If I went into the next election and held up my hands and said, ‘Trust me’, I think I’d get a pretty big raspberry.

"Which is why we have to work very hard on the details of the policies we are offering as alternatives. We must show why there is a better way and exactly how we can achieve that. I’ve got to deal with the world as it is now and it would be foolish to ignore that people are pretty cynical. However much they may feel let down by Labour, they are not yet convinced that we would be very different. We have to persuade them of that."

Earnest platitudes, one might say. But they were to be brought to immediate life via that curse of the campaigning politician - the walkabout. Instantly, the Labour-controlled rain clouds knit together to offer a partisan welcome to Leeds city centre, but Howard is walking so fast that he outpaces the huge blue umbrellas proffered by his retinue. "Hello-there-I’m-Michael-Howard-how-are-you?" he rattles out every few seconds and mostly moves off before eliciting any reply beyond a dazed smile from the surprised citizen.

"That’s the Prime Minister," a girl with fuchsia hair advises her friend. "Soon, soon," she’s told - and is given a leaflet to emphasise the point. Mothers with pushchairs are preferred targets, their reward a nice blue balloon for junior. Just once, someone has the presence of mind to say she will not be voting for the Conservative candidate. "Don’t worry, you will be persuaded," the party leader assures her, as he darts to shake hands with an elderly gentleman in plus-fours and a Tyrolean hat.

Unfortunately, he’s German-speaking, which for a moment I think has provoked an international incident, as two of the aides suddenly hiss, "Move left, move left NOW." As it turns out, it is not feathered Alpine headgear that has appalled them, but the proximity of an Ann Summers shop. Howard’s reputation as a former lothario is one thing, but being photographed alongside a display of crotchless knickers quite another.

Twenty minutes at a smart trot, and the visit is complete. The party faithful shake Howard’s hand with tears in their eyes. "It’s so wonderful to have a leader we don’t need to apologise for," says a stout woman, clasping him with a two-handed grip. She receives an enigmatic smile in response. Loyalty has been a continuing feature of Michael Howard’s career. To Thatcher, John Major, William Hague and to Iain Duncan-Smith, who appointed him shadow chancellor and ended his voluntary backbench exile. And yes, he tells me later, he still thinks it is important.

"I have been loyal to all the leaders of the Conservative party I have served. I take the view that you’re part of a team and you have to put that first. I’ve had my disagreements with most of the teams I’ve been part of and I’ll argue my corner, but once a decision has been made, you must accept it, unless you disagree so profoundly that you resign. That’s the only alternative."

I want to talk Geoffrey Howe and cricket bats, Alan Clark and shocking betrayal. But this is Howard’s moment and it would be sad if it had to be corseted into a cramped cinch of past Conservative clangers. That does not mean he could not defend the same. His greatest talent is also his greatest liability: a subtle mind and a love of clever argument for its own sake.

To some, this smacks of the QC who can argue any brief but holds no strong beliefs of his own. Howard has been described as "politically androgynous" and "all things to all men".

He grew up in Llanelli, south Wales, the son of a Romanian Jewish father, Bernat Hecht, a synagogue cantor, and a Russian Jewish mother. They fled to Britain before the outbreak of the Second World War. His maternal grandmother died in Auschwitz. Howard’s father became a naturalised British citizen in 1947 and changed the family name to Howard. He made a living running ladies’ dress shops, but impressed upon his gifted son that education was the crucial passport, the only one that could take him anywhere he wished.

At first that was Cambridge, where he read economics and then law, and was president of the union; then to the Bar and then, after a long struggle to secure a winnable seat, to the House of Commons in 1983 as MP for Folkestone and Hythe. But it was his four years as Home Secretary from 1993-1997 that identified him as a hard-liner, with his "prison works" slogan and his insistence that he went into politics to make a difference, not win a popularity contest.

Which is just as well, judging from his popularity at the time. He came last in the leadership contest of 1997, winning only 23 votes from his colleagues and vowing never to stand again.

So what changed? How did the man whose credits include the introduction of the poll tax suddenly take on the mantle of party saviour? Or could that in itself be just another illusion? Until very recently, Howard has relentlessly reiterated that politics should be about issues, not personalities. He is a savage and feared debater. But he has had enough experience of winning battles while steadily losing the war to realise that a somewhat modified approach will be needed if he wants to win the keys to 10 Downing Street.

So we are suddenly privy to details of his favourite authors (Evelyn Waugh and F Scott Fitzgerald) and his favourite films - Blowup and Darling, which starred his all-time favourite actress Julie Christie. So captivated was he by her willowy sensuality that he swore never to marry until he met someone he considered her equal. That took until he was 34 years old, when he met Sandra. He also likes jazz, baseball, horseracing and the Beatles. Questions about his family are no longer met by a stony silence, though he prefers not to comment on his son Nicholas’s decision to renounce Judaism and train for the Anglican priesthood.

Otherwise, the softening of Howard’s image continues at a furious pace. Instead of stern statistics about taxation, we are told that he previously enjoyed a preference for purple bed sheets; and that he ritually watches re-runs of Brideshead Revisited every New Year’s Eve. That he and Sandra play table tennis in the garage to keep fit. They have two cats and their Pimlico drawing room is decorated in shades of pink.

Old political chums such as Norman Lamont have written newspaper articles commending Howard’s capacity for friendship and defending him against the slur that he has somehow suppressed or discarded his immigrant background. ("What his critics see as his ‘nationalism’ is part of his sense of what this country has done for him and his family. As a young barrister, he was an outspoken advocate for the rights of Ugandan Asians expelled by Idi Amin. It was not a universally popular view, but Michael was uncompromising." )

But is it enough? No-one can doubt that Howard brings gravitas to the job; what they do doubt is his capacity for the common touch, whether or not his charisma is sufficient to sway disillusioned voters, especially women voters. Throughout the day in Leeds, my opinion fluctuates constantly. He tells me that he finds the devotion of the party workers, "overwhelming and quite humbling", that when he is at party gatherings he is "often moved to tears by the extent to which people are investing their hopes" in him.

Yet he can turn steely litigator faster than you can scrabble for a Kleenex. When a junior reporter from a London-based black culture magazine makes foolish errors in the phrasing of her questions, he does not conceal his irritation. "What have I just told you?" he barks, as her voice quavers and her eyes fill with tears. "You’re making me very cross." Later, I ask if he considers himself an impatient person. "Bang to rights, there," he replies. "Impatience is one of my besetting sins, it’s absolutely true."

Even so, he claims he is "much more relaxed" than he used to be. "I think that is something which comes with getting older. You do tend to see things in perspective and not get quite so excited by the ups and downs of every day." He also sleeps later, he says, adding that one of the great mistakes he made as Home Secretary was not getting enough sleep. Hardly any wonder that he had something of the night about him, then.

But however many fluffy anecdotes are added to the Howard CV, he remains at heart an old-fashioned Tory. Not the sort of chap to favour women-only shortlists or feel in any way uneasy with an all-male Cabinet. Whether releasing a flood of Sandra’s recipes for braised steak or gazpacho can redress this is doubtful. Overall, only 17 per cent of Conservative candidates are women - up a whopping one per cent from the last election. He may agree that women are more sceptical about political promises, but suggests only that they "make the connection between their frustration with the present government and their vote".

Which leaves me with just one more question. Why on earth did he send Sandra Tender Is the Night when he could have sent her The Great Gatsby, the Fitzgerald book that TS Eliot described as the most perfectly constructed novel of the 20th century?

But before I ask, I suddenly remember that not only does Jay Gatsby finish up shot dead in a swimming pool, but the green light at the end of the pier, which he gazes at throughout the book to remind him of his love, really signifies Daisy’s distance and unattainability. And if there is one thing in which Michael Howard has no interest whatsoever, it’s the unattainable.