Peter Oborne

Michael Howard sounds like a man who wants to dump traditional Conservatism

Michael Howard sounds like a man who wants to dump traditional Conservatism

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This year’s dominant theme has been the domestic legacy of the war against Iraq. It has hung over British politics like a cloud of mustard gas, foul-smelling and ubiquitous. This week the cloud at last lifted, and it became possible to survey with a new clarity the ravaged landscape. Lt Col Blair, the commanding officer, now walks with a pronounced limp, and shows signs of shock. But the important thing is that he is still in place, barking orders and to some extent in command. Major Hoon is at his post. The regimental adjutant, Captain Campbell, had to be taken away by the military police and silenced after becoming hysterical. The devastation is widespread. Dyke, Davies and Gilligan are missing. Major Howard on the opposition side has been injured. Only Lt Kennedy has survived unscathed.

There was still an air of confusion and unreality about Westminster this week. Too much drama had been compressed into too short a time, with far too much at stake. On Monday Downing Street gingerly sounded the all-clear. ‘Looking ahead to the business for the next few days,’ the Prime Minister’s official spokesman advised journalists on Monday, ‘crime, health, education and antisocial behaviour will all be highlighted by ministers through announcements and events.’

Tony Blair wants to return to the home agenda. He will get his way for the time being. Remorseless coverage of WMD was beginning, among other things, to damage newspaper circulation. In any case Michael Howard agrees with the Prime Minister. On Monday night the Tory leader sought to move things forward by making a speech, perhaps better described as a ritual incantation of the kind that has become obligatory among Conservative leaders in opposition. Iain Duncan Smith made exactly the same sort of speech at exactly the same moment of his ill-fated leadership, and so did William Hague. The general idea is to show what a broadminded and easy-going sort of chap you are — the vogue word is ‘inclusive’. From Duncan Smith this claim to be at ease in the modern world never fell short of being enjoyably preposterous, while from William Hague it was a bit fishy. Michael Howard stakes his own claim to modernity with a sulphurously counterintuitive plausibility, as if he really believes it. Perhaps he does.

Tradition demands that, in addition to the ritual incantation, any new Conservative leader must make a special votive offering to the liberal elite. Howard’s was an impressive one — official support for gay marriage — a measure opposed by Iain Duncan Smith. I am told Howard’s speech caused indigestion when the No Turning Back group met for one of its regular dinners last Monday night. It is a sign of Howard’s ready command of the Conservative party that not one NTB diner has gone public with recrimination.

As important as the speech itself was the fact that Howard chose to make it to Policy Exchange, inaccurately described in the following day’s newspapers as a centre-right think tank. Policy Exchange is dedicated to the exploitation of Blairite insights for Conservative party use. Francis Maude, who lurks behind it, is one of the most interesting figures in the parliamentary party. He stands in the same kind of relation to Michael Howard as Peter Mandelson once did, and to some extent still does, to Tony Blair. So vicious is the hostility towards Maude that Michael Howard felt unable to give him a shadow Cabinet job last November. Maude’s influence with the leadership is nevertheless powerful. He was the dominant intellectual force behind the speech, which was, however, partly written by Edward Vaizey, an occasional Guardian columnist who has mysteriously strayed into the Conservative party.

Much of Monday night’s speech suggests that Michael Howard is moving away from what might loosely be regarded as traditional Conservatism towards a form of social liberalism. The purest international manifestation of this outlook is espoused by the Progressive Democrats, one of the minor parties in the Irish Parliament. Though small, the PD is rigorously consistent. It more or less consciously links easy-going attitudes to private sexual behaviour with support for a low-taxed, lightly regulated economy which provides the scope for individuals and businesses to flourish. This is what Michael Howard was saying with his warning of a ‘state that has grown so much that it diminishes the people that it is meant to serve’.

Howard seems happy enough to set out the policy consequences of social liberalism in the private sphere. He has so far been coy about explaining what it means for taxation and spending. Admittedly his theoretical position is abundantly clear, but in practice much remains to be resolved. Part of the trouble is that the shadow Cabinet is split, though with little of the bitterness and recrimination that would have been a feature of previous regimes. Maurice Saatchi and Liam Fox, the joint party chairmen, still getting along fine together, are said to be pressing for a ‘robust’ position on tax cuts. The modernising faction, whose most important representative in the shadow Cabinet remains Oliver Letwin, is more cautious. Some modernisers warn that the Conservatives will be ‘crucified’ by Labour over spending plans if they promise tax cuts. This is an uncomfortable, though by no means unfamiliar, dilemma and Michael Howard’s own position is obscure. For all of his philosophical enthusiasm for a smaller state, as shadow chancellor he slapped down Iain Duncan Smith when he promised to cut taxes. It is expected that Letwin’s keenly awaited speech this Monday will clarify matters. Some members of the shadow Cabinet say they have been promised a formula to emerge in time for the Harrogate spring conference next month.

It has been a difficult February for Michael Howard. This week he reaches the end of his first 100 days, when any new leader tends to become subject to intrusive interim assessments. Without doubt Howard expected too much of the Hutton report, though he was far from alone in that: all of Fleet Street was in the same boat. But since Hutton he has lost his deftness of touch, while that marvellous self-confidence which made him such a joy to follow in his early weeks seems for the time being to have abandoned him. The Tory leader surely overplayed his hand in calling for Tony Blair to resign over the 45-minute claim last week and then underplayed it in tamely consenting to back Lord Butler’s forlorn investigation into WMD.

But he remains a formidable force, and should have learnt one big lesson from the last two weeks: the steady degradation of Tony Blair is a private matter between the Prime Minister and the British people which does not involve the Tories. Voters are eager to hear from Hans Blix, David Kay, Dr Brian Jones of the Defence Intelligence Staff and perhaps even Robin Cook on the subject of Tony Blair’s integrity. But not really from Michael Howard, whose mountainous but not quite impossible task in the coming months is to establish the Conservative party as a credible government-in-waiting.