Of course we were. And yet, somehow, his departure doesn't seem to be quite the matter for rejoicing that it ought to be. For a start, he did two things of note that rather blemish this record of sustained illiberalism. One, as it happens, did not get its first totemic, stunning result until after he had left office. For many people growing up in the Fifties, the hanging - thanks to the Bloody Assize of Lord Goddard - of Derek Bentley for a murder that he did not commit and, indeed, was committed when he was in police custody, became the reason they opposed capital punishment.
Yet it was not until Howard did what his predecessors, Tory and Labour, had successively failed to do, that the Bentley family had their chance. Howard took the decisions of whether perceived miscarriages of justice should be referred to the Court of Appeal out of the hands of the Home Office and into the hands of the independent criminal appeals machinery that eventually did, in respect of Derek Bentley, what natural justice had long demanded.
The second, and closely related, point was that Howard changed his mind about capital punishment itself in the opposite way to the one calculated to enhance his own reputation on the Tory right - which in any case had always been circumscribed by the unhealthy but unmentionably persistent seam of anti-Semitism in his party. Having examined the cases of both the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, he calmly announced, he had come to the conclusion that the risk of justice miscarrying made it impossible to justify the death penalty.
Important though these achievements are to Howard's political obituary, they are relevant here only in so far as they point to another of his most notable characteristics: a deep-dyed, stubborn hostility to almost any form of European integration. The point is not whether this was terribly destructive - as when, at the time of the Maastricht negotiations, he threatened to resign if Major signed the Social Chapter - but simply that it was genuine. Howard was, in his own fashion, a conviction politician.
He is for example, the only senior practising Tory to have said in my hearing that if the British people voted to join EMU he would, if still in politics, fight to reverse the decision. This may be crazy. But it betokens an unusual intensity of purpose, more unusual perhaps than it looks in a party supposedly wedded by equally strong principle to the same conviction.
The new Conservative Front Bench largely, though not exclusively, reflects a strengthening of the anti-European right in the Tory front rank in the wake of the European elections. By yesterday appointing as his own PPS (parliamentary private secretary) - a much more important post in Opposition than in government - the highly able John Whittingdale, William Hague is consciously aping Margaret Thatcher, who had Whittingdale as her last political secretary at Downing Street.
Iain Duncan Smith will surely find it impossible to resist the temptation to exploit his Defence post, much more ferociously than his predecessor John Maples (the main front-rank promotee who is not a doctrinaire Eurosceptic), to try to persuade the voters that Mr Blair's European defence initiative is other than what it is, a wholly commendable effort, endorsed by the United States, to persuade the big EU nations to shoulder more of their own responsibilities. Never mind that even the impeccably Eurosceptic Michael Portillo was heading as Defence Secretary in a not dissimilar direction, until be was pulled back under pressure from his even more headbanging colleagues. Expect to hear a lot more about the utterly mythical single European army.
Meanwhile the main qualification for promotion to the Shadow Cabinet of Bernard Jenkin, to take another random example, are his credentials as a Portillista from way back, who when explaining in an interview the Tories' (highly effective) slogan - "In Europe but not run by Europe" - remarked that we were in the European continent but not run by it, almost as if he could not even bring himself to admit to mention membership of the EU. All these people can be relied on to harness and inflame what they perceive to be the tide of Eurosceptic feeling in which, they have now convinced themselves, lies the only chance of increasing the Tories' popularity.
For in studying the new front bench we should not forget that there is a strong strain of the cynical as well as the ideological.
Leave aside the point - which cannot be repeated too often - that the current Tory position of ruling out EMU in the next parliament is an unprincipled abortion: not so ideologically pure that it rules out British entry, not so flexibly devoted to the national interest that it accepts that Britain should go in whenever conditions are right. After all, that could conceivably change; the hard right, emboldened by over-interpretation of the weekend's results, could now force Mr Hague to rule out EMU entry for good - suicidally divisive though that would be in relation to the Conservative pro-Europeans.
No, there is a further point. For I suspect that for all its deep, if not universal Euroscepticism, there is a pragmatic core to the new Front Bench absent in the make-up of, say, Mr Howard.
Every time, for example, Francis Maude, consolidated by the reshuffle in his position as shadow Chancellor, says that EMU is so dangerous because it is irreversible, he is signalling that if the British people were to vote "yes" in a referendum the argument in the Tory party would be over.
And Mr Maude is not only the high Eurosceptic who would be able to live with a post-EMU future. I do not mean that there are no others who would go down the Howard route. Some like Mr Duncan Smith would probably leave politics altogether. But several of the others, while determinedly pushing the argument to the wire, doing everything they can to prevent Mr Blair holding his referendum, will not bet their own ranches on the outcome. They will risk the national interest. But they will not risk their own careers. Against this, there is something rather magnificent about the departing Mr Howard's obduracy.Reuse content