When Michael Howard became Tory leader, time was desperately short. For six and a half years, the Tories had been unable to convert Labour’s negatives to their positives. They had failed to re-establish their political identity. They were still allowing their opponents to define them, and there were only 18 months to go before the next election campaign. Yet in the early days, Mr Howard brought hope. The public was growing increasingly cynical about the government. Mr Blair’s moral standing, so crucial for his electoral appeal, had largely disappeared. A new Tory leader, with confidence, maturity and grip, could surely reshape the political battlefield.
It has not happened. The Tories have largely wasted the last year. They have still not asserted their political identity, and Michael Howard must take most of the blame. He has surrounded himself with excellent staff officers and Tory Central Office is in better shape than it has been for years. With one exception, there is nothing wrong with the adjutants. What is missing is the bold battle plan which only the leader can provide.
There, Mr Howard has the defect of his qualities. Despite long years in opposition, he still approaches problems as if he were a cabinet minister, reaching down into the little details when he should be concentrating on the big politics. An obvious example of this is ID cards. A good lawyer, Michael Howard also suffers from legalitis. He often comes up with qualifications when strategy is required.
The Tory policy on the Iraq war is the classic example. What is it? I do not know. I know what it ought to be: ‘right to fight; wrong to lie’. Instead, Mr Howard seems to be saying that if he had known now what he ought to have been told then, he might — but only might — have voted differently several months ago, which is not to say that the government should change its policy. Instead of a clear message for his troops, he ended up with something sounding like one of the more obscure passages in the ‘Four Quartets’.
Mr Howard’s scrupulousness and concern for complexity would make him an excellent prime minister. Unfortunately for him, he is up against an opponent whose lack of scruples make him a very poor prime minister, but a brilliant leader of the opposition. Nearly eight years on, Michael Howard still thinks that he is home secretary, Tony Blair still thinks he is fighting the 1997 election. Mr Blair’s approach has led to negligent, wasteful government, but that is not going to stop him winning the 1997 election for the third time, especially if the Tories cannot raise their game.
They have missed one obvious opportunity to do so. A few months ago, Labour’s strategists decided that there was only one obstacle to their re-election. All their research painted the same picture; voters were becoming explosively angry about crime. They had reached three unshakeable conclusions: that they were not nearly safe enough, that the police were not nearly good enough and that the criminals were not nearly harassed enough. None of this could be assuaged by statistical sleights. The public was not going to change its mind, and why should it? It was right.
Labour’s strategists assumed that the Tories’ opinion research was providing them with the same data. As crime is a traditional Tory issue, the Labour people feared that the Tories might try to turn 2005 into a single-issue election campaign: on crime. In response, Labour came up with a single-issue Queen’s Speech, including ID cards, in the hope that this would split the Tory party. It did. But none of this was unpredictable. The Tories did not need to wait for the Queen’s Speech to make an inadequate, confused response. They should have been thundering away about crime for the whole of last year, which would have enabled them to scorn the measures in the Queen’s Speech as too little, too late; in politics, clichés work. Instead, they failed to put up a fight.
This is one of the more extraordinary examples of political negligence in modern politics. But there was a simple, two-word explanation: David Davis. Mr Davis should have been co-ordinating the Tory’s crime offensive. He is the shadow home secretary. ‘Shadow’ is the word. It would be wrong to describe him as useless. He is far worse than that. Presented with the best opportunity that any front-bench spokesman has had for many years, he wasted it.
Mr Davis would try to defend his record by claiming to have forced the resignations of Beverley Hughes and David Blunkett. That is nonsense. Their misconduct forced their resignations. Mr Davis had as little to do with their demise as Falstaff had with the death of Hotspur. In the case of Miss Hughes, indeed, David Davis missed an opportunity — to nail Mr Blunkett. There was every hope that the paper trail would link her misdemeanours to her boss’s orders; the boss being David Blunkett. But nothing was done to pursue that. Mr Blunkett survived easily, until a later paper trail.
There is only one rational explanation — David Davis’s latitude: a calculation that if Mr Howard were to become PM, he would be too old to succeed him, so that his prospects depended on another Tory defeat. Some of those around Mr Howard do not believe that this is excessively cynical. I suggested to one of them that David Davis should be fired. ‘No. He’d make too much trouble on the back benches.’ I argued that back-bench plotting might be less dangerous than front-bench idleness, and that at the very least Michael Howard should take steps to galvanise the shadow home secretary, reinforced by the threat of dismissal. Even a man so consumed by solid solipsistic ambition as David Davis might recognise that refusing a job under one leader and being sacked by his two successors is hardly a leadership CV.
The Tories are planning to make as much as possible out of crime between now and the next election, but it is late. Does this mean that all hope is gone? Not necessarily. There is one figure which should still bring comfort to the Tories, and inspiration for their efforts. At most, 40 per cent of the electorate has decided that it will vote, and how it will vote. The rest are wavering between apathy, disillusion and resentment. In 2005, they might vote for Charlie Kennedy, for Ukip or for Respect. Many of them will support the fastest growing party in Britain, which is bound to become the single largest after the next election: the Stop At Home Party. The days are long gone when an automatic swing of the political pendulum would lead them back to the principal opposition party. But a strong Tory message over the next four months might still win over a lot of voters whose political allegiance is now so shallow that it may not take that much to persuade them. But the Tories must seize the day. Otherwise, they will find that the wings of time are tipped with the feathers of death.