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Hooray Howard?

Claims of a Tory leadership solution have been greatly exaggerated.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Have the media and political worlds taken leave of their senses? Many journalists and politicos have welcomed Michael Howard’s decision to stand for the leadership of the Tory Party – and Tory MPs’ apparent decision to back him – as a sign that the Tories are getting back on track.

‘For the first time in many years, the Tories are on the verge of giving Labour a run for its money’, says the Sun. In an opinion piece in the Guardian, former Tory cabinet minister Malcolm Rifkind claims ‘politics is about to get interesting’, and ‘for the first time in 10 years, the Tories are hungry for power’ (1).

This looks like a sad case of the Emperor’s new clothes – where the heralding of Howard is driven more by wishful thinking than by political analysis. Far from representing a ‘new start’, as one paper put it, both the ousting of Iain Duncan Smith and the emergence of Howard as the only contender for the Tory leadership are the result of a deeper malaise within the Tory Party.

The dumping of Duncan Smith was not a leadership challenge as we have known them in the past, but an angst-ridden lashing out by Tory MPs. Feeling themselves increasingly isolated and devoid of purpose, Tories effectively threw a tantrum – and they aimed it at the person of IDS, the most public symbol of their party’s declining fortunes.

It is particularly striking that IDS did not even get a chance to contest an election. Dumping party leaders usually takes place after they have shown themselves lacking or incapable in the public, political arena. Thatcher won three elections before she was ousted in 1990; both John Major and William Hague resigned their leadership of the Tory Party after losing elections, in 1997 and 2001 respectively. But IDS was thrown out by the party after a mere two years in Opposition.

This indicates that the anti-IDS movement, if you can call it that, was not about stirring up the political process in the outside world; it was driven by internal party problems. The complaints aimed at IDS – that he had failed to boost party membership, that the party had ‘lost money’ under his leadership, that his policies were inept – are actually problems of an isolated and visionless party. IDS became the punchbag for disgruntled MPs.

That is why his fall was followed by an outbreak of sudden shyness, where prominent Tory MPs refused to stand for the position of leader. The removal of IDS was not about getting a new leader with some new policies, but about doing something, anything to transform the party’s fortunes. The Tories’ vote of no confidence in IDS was effectively a vote of no confidence in themselves, in the Tory Party as it currently exists.

It is in this climate that Howard has emerged as the only viable leader. He is seen as a vaguely safe bet, as someone who won’t lose the next general election by an overly embarrassing majority. For all the talk of going for something new, Tory MPs seem to be opting for something old – a 62-year-old former cabinet minister who served in the grey days of John Major’s premiership in the early 1990s; an old-style politico who was attached to the now discredited Thatcher and Major administrations.

Just as there was no political movement against IDS, nor is there much evidence of political unity behind Howard. Many of the younger Tories who were expected to stand after IDS fell – David Davis, Oliver Letwin, Liam Fox – appear to be biding their time, waiting for a better time to go for the top job. As one report says, they hope that Howard will do a ‘competent’ job and lose the next election ‘less badly’ than Major and Hague lost theirs (2). For all the talk of Howard becoming the next prime minister, many of the Tories backing him know full well he will not win a general election.

Indeed, the younger Tories all but admit that they are waiting for the right time to fulfil their ambitions. A headline in today’s Times claims that ‘Davis aims to be the next leader but one’, reporting that David Davis’ ‘long-term ambitions to lead the Tory Party remain undimmed’ (3). Such Tories back Howard, but they see him as little more than a stopgap measure, someone who can hold the beleaguered fort for a while.

The routing of IDS and the backing of Howard are the actions of an isolated party and of uncertain MPs. Far from getting the party back on track, such internally-driven shifts and crises can only exacerbate the Tories’ bigger problems.

Pro-New Labour commentators have welcomed Howard as potential leader – not because they respect him, but because they desire a stable Tory Party, to give some semblance of normality to British politics. It is a fear of things spinning out of control, of political parties generally heading into the abyss, that leads some Labour ministers and supporters to welcome Howard’s rule.

But as this shadowy character from Major’s grey cabinet looks set to take over the Tories, politics is going to become anything but stable, or interesting. Before long, the talk is likely to revolve around Howard’s history – the dark days of Thatcherism, recalling the outrageous things Howard has done in his political career, the promises he has broken, the time he was asked the same question by BBC Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman 14 times but refused to answer….

In a world of Howard v Blair, it will be personality politics as usual – without much personality, or politics.

Read on:

Pulling their putsches, by Josie Appleton

The strange death of Tory England, by Josie Appleton

(1) ‘Racing start’, Sun, 31 October 2003; Politics is about to get interesting, Malcolm Rifkind, Guardian, 31 October 2003

(2) Press review: Bathing in the Sun, Guardian, 31 October 2003

(3) Davis aims to be the next leader but one, The Times (London), 31 October 2003

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Topics Politics

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