Michael Howard, leadership contender

There is still a lively vein of anti-Semitism in the Tory party
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He may look shifty on television, but he believes he has a real chance of succeeding John Major

It's Law and Order Week. Opening a Government-arranged debate in the Commons on his sentencing White Paper, Michael Howard yesterday defied his critics among the judiciary, the liberal establishment and the Tory peerage by beginning a new chapter in the party's relentless effort to wrongfoot Jack Straw and the Labour Party on crime.

The Home Secretary's appearance at the dispatch box was calculated to influence, to the advantage of his party and himself, two decisive events still likeliest to take place in 1997: the general election and the struggle for the party leadership that will follow the Tories' predicted defeat. For Michael Howard sees himself as a serious candidate to succeed John Major.

To propose him as a potential Conservative leader is to invite ridicule within many quarters of the Tory party as well as beyond it. The case against it is formidable: Douglas Hurd said in his wise Commons speech after standing down as Foreign Secretary that such was the modern public distrust of politicians that those who succeeded in the future would be those who least sounded like politicians. Of the available candidates, only Kenneth Clarke begins to fulfil that ideal. Howard is the living antithesis of it; politician rather than statesman in image, he sounds and looks shifty and untrustworthy on television. He exudes the air of a man whose principal conviction is scoring off his opponents. He has failed to reverse the impressive poll lead on law and order built up for Labour by Tony Blair. There aren't many MPs for whom he would be the first choice.

There is also one dreadful reason for the conventional wisdom that Michael Howard won't become leader. The Tory party hasn't opted for a Jewish leader since Disraeli was a rather outstanding one. There is still a lively if unacknowledged vein of anti-Semitism in sections of the Tory party, which is normally only exposed in times of crisis: it helped to do for Leon Brittan, it played a part in the lynch mob that saw off Edwina Currie - and it informed some of the grandees' dislike of David Young. With these handicaps, justified and utterly unjustified, how could Howard succeed?

Let's assume that Tony Blair wins the election, and that John Major ignores any pleas to hang on for a year or so. The leadership campaign that follows will be extraordinary both for the number of candidates and its length. Under the party's new rules, the ballot cannot take place until three months after the opening of the new parliament.

At present the list of plausible candidates include, beside Howard, John Redwood, Michael Portillo, Stephen Dorrell, Malcolm Rifkind, Gillian Shephard, Ian Lang, Brian Mawhinney and Kenneth Clarke. That is not counting Michael Heseltine, who one senior minister said this week "absolutely" could not be ruled out, especially if Tony Blair were to secure only a narrow majority - nor a returning Chris Patten.

There is one certainty and one assumption about the contest. The certainty is that the party, after a fresh intake of new MPs who grew up in the Thatcher years, will ensure another pronounced swing to the right. That is the reason for the subtle repositioning of candidates with roots on the left, such as Dorrell and Rifkind. The second is that for the three most prominent right-wingers, Redwood, Portillo and Howard, the first ballot will be a "primary". There is the gruesome prospect that they will therefore compete with each other in extremism on everything from the EU to capital punishment, in which case Howard would probably come off worst. (He no longer believes in hanging, and to his credit says so.) But there will also be a strong countervailing question: who would split the party, and who would have a sporting chance of holding it together?

The argument for Howard goes like this: he has long-term street cred on the right, which Dorrell and Rifkind do not: after Black Wednesday, he saw off in Cabinet an attempt to pledge that Britain would go back into the ERM. He stiffened Major's insistence on the Social Chapter opt- out. But he has also been loyal. He didn't resign and challenge Major, and he didn't allow a bank of telephones to be installed in a safe house before the 1995 leadership contest was anything like over. Moreover, he is part of a generation of Cambridge friends that crosses the political spectrum.And he has longer experience, at Employment and the Home Office, in tackling Tony Blair head on than any other member of the Cabinet.

He does not yet have a big constituency in the Commons. But some Tories insist that credible figures such as Sir Nicholas Bonsor, David Maclean and Archie Hamilton would back him. So, I suspect, would Tim Collins, a former Howard adviser who, as part of the Major inner circle, could be especially influential with the new intake, of which he will be a part. And in a long campaign they would do their utmost to expose some of the passion and engagement which his supporters point out he displays much more in private than he does in public.

There are lots of reasons why this might not work. They may be old friends, but would Clarke really serve in a Shadow Cabinet that Howard would swiftly commit to opposing a single currency? And is Redwood, who pointedly didn't show up at the Goldsmith-Cash-Aitken beano last week, incapable of broadening his appeal? Won't the party decide that Howard could never win an election and opt instead for a centrist, such as Lang or Shephard? And so on. It may well not happen; but a discreet, long-range campaign is under way.