Richard Littlejohn

Nothing less than victory

Michael Howard tells Richard Littlejohn that he is not even contemplating a hung parliament, let alone defeat

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‘It’s the Sun wot won it,’ crowed Kelvin MacKenzie with characteristic chutzpah on the front page of Britain’s best-selling newspaper after Neil Kinnock had crashed to defeat in the 1992 general election. As the nation went to the polls, the Currant Bun featured the Welsh Windbag’s head inside a 40-watt bulb, under the headline, ‘If Kinnock wins, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.’ When the Tories were returned to office, Kelvin was quick to claim the credit.

Well, up to a point, Lord Wapping. The Sun has a voice, but it doesn’t have a vote. In truth, it was the Sun’s readers wot won it, just as they had in every other election in modern times. During the 1980s they backed the Thatcher revolution, which transformed their lives, respected them as individuals, freed them from trade union tyranny and put money in their pockets.

By 1992 the Tories had run out of steam and had replaced the Iron Lady with a leader for whom the term lacklustre might have been minted. The good times of the Eighties were a distant memory as interest rates soared and the property bubble burst. All those who had bought their council houses suddenly found their homes worth less than their mortgages. Black Wednesday was just a few short months away.

And yet, and yet.... As a columnist on the Sun, my postbag provides a pretty accurate insight into the mood of the readers. In 1992 they were sick of the sight of the Conservatives but couldn’t bring themselves to make the great leap forward to Labour, especially under the buffoonish leadership of Kinnocchio.

Some commentators see the defining moment of that campaign as Labour’s Sheffield rally. It was meant to be Kinnock’s Martin Luther King ‘I have a dream’ moment. Instead, it was more like the assassination of MLK — except that Kinnock turned the gun on himself. He stood on the podium and screamed, ‘Well, AWWLLL-RIIIGHTTT!!’ He sounded less like a potential prime minister and more like Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band live at the Detroit Silverdome. Sun readers saw the future of rock’n’roll and trooped to the polls to return the Tories for a fourth successive term.

So where are we up to this time around? Again I look to my postbag, as well as my viscera. As the phoney war splutters to an end and the campaign proper begins, everything tells me this is 1992 all over again.

Voters are bitterly disillusioned with Labour. They can see through the spin and statistics, they have tired of the smears and the lies. There is an overwhelming sense of betrayal. Labour was elected with a mandate which would have allowed it to change Britain irrevocably and, depending on your point of view, for the better. The Sun and its readers decided Tony Blair had earned his chance and renounced Labour’s bad old tax-and-spend ways. Here was the opportunity to reform the public services and transform the nation for the 21st century.

Four years on, nothing. Labour’s first term had been squandered. When Blair came back for a second mandate, the electorate sent him away again with the clear message: you’ve already got your mandate — now get on with it. Four years later, 66 tax rises have not translated into ‘world-class’ schools’n’ospitals, unless you include world record illiteracy and deaths from MRSA. To call the transport system ‘Third World’ is an insult to the Third World. And then there’s that war, which the Sun and the majority of its readers supported because it was the right thing to do, but which was sold on a false prospectus because Blair can’t help lying, even when he’s right. Now, for the first time in a generation, incomes and living standards are falling. Tony Blair’s make-up is dry and cracked on his chin.

And yet, despite disappointment bordering on loathing, I still detect a reluctance among the electorate in general — and Sun readers in particular — to make the jump to the Conservatives. So I went to see Michael Howard at the Conservatives’ shiny new headquarters in Victoria Street. Come on, Michael, help convince me to convince them.

The day I saw him, he was still embroiled in the Howard Flight fiasco. A five-minute wonder had turned into a five-day feeding frenzy. The BBC and the ‘liberal’ media were filling their boots. There’s nothing they love more than a Tory Split.

My view on Flight’s dismissal as Tory deputy chairman chimes with that of The Spectator — harsh, but necessary. But was it really essential to sack him as an MP, too? ‘Absolutely,’ insisted Howard. ‘People are allowed to say things with which I disagree. But we’re not going to say one thing in private and another in public. We are not going to make promises before an election and do another thing after it. What people must not do is misrepresent my position and give the impression we’ve got a hidden agenda.’

Fair enough. The fate of Howard Flight won’t be an issue with Sun readers. As I put it in the paper, ‘Man you’ve never heard of gets the sack.’ But what if it’s a hung parliament, there turns out to be one seat in it, and the Liberals have taken Arundel? ‘I don’t think that’s likely to happen.’

Howard is adamant that he’s not even contemplating a hung parliament, let alone defeat. That’s not what a lot of his MPs are saying in private. In fact, they think a hung parliament would be as good as a victory. ‘I don’t accept that. Our private polling is very encouraging,’ he said. That’s borne out by this week’s Financial Times survey which puts the Tories in the lead among those who are certain to vote.

So it makes sense to make sure the core vote turns out, which is why Lynton Crosby has been so eager to concentrate on ‘dog-whistle’ issues.

Are you thinking what we’re thinking? Sun readers certainly are, but they’re not yet convinced the Conservatives have the answers. Crosby’s doing a sterling job, but Howard might need Stills, Nash and Young, too, if he’s to persuade the nation he deserves his chance.

This week Howard has been pushing on an open door, promising to take away the driving licences of young tearaways. It’s of a piece with his careful addressing of the causes of disgruntlement. He’s strong on crime, having reduced it by 18 per cent when he was home secretary. The other big theme of the week is a plan to allow matrons to overrule hospital managers and shut down wards infected with MRSA. Fine, Michael, but people still remember it was the Conservatives who put cleaning contracts out to tender.

Howard doesn’t want to dwell on the past. ‘I think there is a hunger for change. We have to convince people that change is possible and we can deliver. Many people in the public services, especially the professionals, are fed up with the way they are run. They are going to vote for us.’

But why should Sun readers vote for you, Michael? ‘Lower taxes, controlled immigration, cleaner hospitals and school discipline. People know they’re not getting value for money. We are going to give it to them.’

That’s what Labour says they’re already getting. ‘They’re not and they know it.’

What about tax — the Tories’ trump card in the past? ‘We are making firm promises. We’ll cut tax by £4 billion.’

Sorry, that’s not a figure to which the man on the Clapham bendybus immediately relates. ‘But he can get his head round the 50 per cent discount on council tax for pensioners and I’m confident he’ll get the remaining tax reductions which we h ave yet to announce, so we are giving firm figures. I think Gordon Brown’s picture of the economy is not an accurate one; that it’s too rosy. That’s why we’re devoting £8 billion which we’ve identified to reducing debt. We’ve defined £35 billion worth of savings, £23 billion we’re going to spend in different ways, of the remaining £12 billion....’

Yes, yes. But that’s like squabbling over Labour’s mythical £35 billion ‘cuts’. People understand specifics, such as £5,000 a year worse or better off, or hiring 5,000 more coppers or buying 300 more X-ray machines. They understand, for instance, the war of Margaret Dixon’s shoulder. ‘That’s true, but individual cases must reflect a trend. It wasn’t just Margaret Dixon — 67,000 people had their operations cancelled last year. We will use individual cases when they illustrate a wider point.’

Is he prepared to go for Blair’s throat? After all, Labour has already personalised the campaign with anti-Semitic slurs aimed at Howard and Oliver Letwin. ‘I’ll expose the failings of the government by concentrating on the issues.’

But personality is an issue and Blair has made his personality part of his package. Vote for me and you get a pretty straight kinda guy. Clearly that isn’t true at a family level. He chanted ‘education, education, education’ yet played the system to get his own children into elite schools. Blair talks about being honest yet his wife, who is very much part of the project, took a children’s cancer charity for £100,000 in speaking fees. All of that, m’lud, goes to character. They’re going after you, why will you not go after them on character as well as policy? ‘Because I think that the way they’ve failed this country, and it is the evidence of that failure, which is what people are most interested in. People can make up their own minds about Mr Blair’s character and I don’t think they need much help from me on that.’

OK, let’s try again. If it had been Sandra Howard swanning off round the world, fleecing children’s cancer charities for £100,000, do you honestly think Labour would not have made a political issue of that? Howard smiles. ‘I don’t feel apologetic about being different from them. I have a different set of values.’

John Major once said he had grown to hate Blair. How does Howard feel about the man who was once his Labour shadow and with whom he was said to have enjoyed a cordial, if not warm, relationship? Does he still like Blair? ‘I don’t think hate is a very productive emotion but I don’t like him as much as I used to. I’ve seen him in action in government. But I think fighting dirty would be counterproductive.’

Howard makes an articulate case against Labour, but I don’t detect any anger. ‘I certainly feel angry. The way Labour has let down the forgotten majority, those who work hard and play by the rules, is a cause for anger.’

And there he does strike a chord with the correspondents who write to me in their thousands. On every single issue, from immigration to gypsy camps to crime to the compensation culture, there is widespread fury that Labour has skewed the system in favour of criminals and chancers and persecuted the law-abiding, tax-paying majority. It might be Howard’s strongest card.

But I sense that the Conservatives are still too cautious, worried about the backlash from the BBC and the ‘liberal’ media. Too much of what’s on offer seems managerial, not revolutionary. There’s no promise of a sea change as there was in 1979 and 1997. Where’s the silver bullet? ‘There is no silver bullet.’

Perhaps not, but there won’t be a Kinnockian Silver Bullet Band moment, either. Howard’s too canny, too lawyerly for that. He must be doing something right. From flatlining at Christmas, he’s hacked away at Labour’s lead and is even in front among those certain to vote. The latest YouGov poll for Sky puts the parties at level pegging among all voters. There’s everything to play for.

On Monday, in a front-page editorial, the Sun said that for the duration of the campaign it would remain independent of the parties. The paper hasn’t made its mind up yet. Howard has three weeks. On 6 May you can be certain of one thing: whatever the outcome, it will be the Sun’s readers wot won it.