On Monday, just as people settled down for the summer holidays, Michael Howard returned from his. He slipped back into Britain and at once set to work. He is already two thirds of the way through the probable term of his leadership. Just eight months remain until the general election, most likely to be called in May. So this may be Howard’s only summer as Tory leader, and he is determined not to waste a moment.
There have been mutterings against Michael Howard in the past few weeks, but no one can challenge the dedication, commitment and passion that this battle-hardened 63-year-old brings to his job. This month, as Tony Blair and family make use of Silvio Berlusconi’s plutocratic villa, Michael Howard will be out there selling the Conservative message. He has been doing so very effectively during August: last week you could hardly open a paper without reading of a new Tory initiative.
Michael Howard still faces great problems, but they are nowhere near as insoluble as they appear. The whimsical row concerning the Notting Hill Tories — a harmless phenomenon which received its first public airing in this column eight weeks ago — was pure silly-season enjoyment and has had no lasting effect one way or another. Apart from this short-term squall, Michael Howard’s Conservative party has had a very good summer indeed. Two big strategic breaks have come its way, one relatively small but the other of wide significance.
Michael Howard’s less important piece of luck concerns the UK Independence party. At the time of its European election triumph in June it looked as if Ukip — which holds a poignant appeal to the most atavistic and, sadly for Michael Howard, by no means least numerous section of the Conservative party activist base — could cause desperate problems at the general election. The worry is not that Ukip could win parliamentary seats on its own account, rather that it would shave thousands of voters in marginal constituencies, costing the Tories dozens of seats.
This disconcerting prospect has become rather less likely over the past few weeks, thanks to the fathomless ineptitude of Ukip. At the time of the European elections I described the party as a ‘rackety collection of conmen, perjurers, convicted criminals and semi-racists’, and for weeks afterwards my postbag featured howls of complaint from outraged Ukip supporters. But it was not long before this assertion began to be vindicated. It soon emerged that one of Ukip’s victorious MEPs, a certain Ashley Mote of the South-East electoral region, was facing trial on allegations of housing fraud. Now comes the Hartlepool by-election, and signs that Ukip is falling apart. I am told that the party originally planned to run Robert Kilroy-Silk as Peter Mandelson’s successor. This could have been a brilliant stroke: Kilroy-Silk is a charismatic and plausible candidate who might well have taken the seat by storm. Envious colleagues seem to have blocked the plan, and the Tories can heave a provisional sigh of relief that Ukip is going nowhere for the time being.
So an important brake on Tory progress has been removed. But Michael Howard’s real stroke of luck lies elsewhere, inside the Labour party itself. It looks very much as if Tony Blair has decided to stay on and lead his party into the next election. This represents an important change of mind by the Prime Minister: only two months ago he instructed the Cabinet secretary Sir Andrew Turnbull to prepare the ground for a resignation, and went to the extreme lengths of pencilling in a date for departure. Supposing that it really is the case that Tony Blair wants to stay — and a sudden announcement from No. 10 this autumn or winter should not be ruled out — Michael Howard really can count himself fortunate.
For ten years Tony Blair has been an unbeatable opponent. He appropriated Conservative party territory, while his charm won over millions of natural Conservative voters. Some of this remains the case, but the Prime Minister’s time is nevertheless up. The past six months have converted him from a unique electoral asset to a liability. All opinion polls and focus groups show that the Prime Minister is at best distrusted and at worst hated. This week’s hubristic visit to the Berlusconi villa symbolises Blair’s fast-growing contempt for the voters — an emotion that is warmly reciprocated.
But the precipitous decline of Tony Blair’s domestic reputation is not his worst problem. The larger difficulty is his estrangement from the Labour party. For years this has made it hard for him to govern; now it threatens to make it impossible. He has lost the battle for the domestic agenda, abandoned his radical programme of domestic reform, and caved in to the unions. It is not merely the old Left — Clare Short, Robin Cook, Roy Hattersley — that has turned on him. The Prime Minister’s own allies have as well. That is the real importance of this week’s despairing denunciation of the Prime Minister by Renewal, the journal of the Labour modernisers who for so long made the Prime Minister their flag-bearer and hero.
Renewal spells out New Labour’s problems: party membership halved since 1997, the absence of an agenda or sense of purpose, the catastrophe of the Iraq war. Commentators have recently chosen, by no means without reason, to focus on the grave Conservative party predicament. But the failure to contemplate the ever graver difficulties facing Tony Blair and New Labour as the general election approaches comes close to professional negligence. According to the polls, support for New Labour stands at about 34 per cent, no higher than for Neil Kinnock in 1992 or William Hague in 2001. Above all there is the unresolved problem of leadership. Gordon Brown no longer attempts to hide his impatient expectation that Tony Blair will step aside. Until this situation is resolved, Labour has no honest basis on which to fight the election. New Labour needs a political rebirth if it is to endure, and the easiest way to achieve this is through a change at the top.
Admittedly, victory at the general election remains far out of Michael Howard’s reach. His task is to keep his party shipshape and lead it to an honourable defeat. Like 1992, the election of 2005 will be a good one to lose, condemning the victor to five years of abuse and neglect. Meanwhile the Conservative party needs to keep its nerve and wait for New Labour to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.