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.