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.