Michael Howard: Is this the true face of the next Tory leader?

The private man has never borne less resemblance to the public image. By the mid 1990s, a lot of voters wanted to put a face on the dartboard of their dislike of the Tory party; Michael Howard's was a popular choice. To many who knew him solely from TV, he came to epitomise everything that they most detested about a Tory regime in terminal decline. They thought him strident, uncaring and insincere.

That is a portrait which his many friends find incomprehensible. Despite an absence of Englishness in his make-up, Mr Howard has a quintessentially English reticence. Self-revelation never comes easily to him. But he has a gift for friendship and all his friends describe the same person: charming, thoughtful, witty, always curious about the varieties of human experience, the opposite of the one-dimensional politician.

Nor did he have a one-dimensional background. His Jewish father left Romania between the wars, out of a mixture of economic and political motives. It was a wise decision; relatives were killed in the Holocaust. The family settled in Wales, where Howard senior, with the help of his wife, ran clothes shops in Llanelli and Carmarthen. They specialised in ladies' fashions, an interest which Michael Howard has retained, though not commercially. The parents were liberal Jews, an affiliation which their son has also retained. He attends a liberal synagogue on Jewish high holidays.

In one respect, however, the parents conformed to the strictest of Jewish orthodoxy. They had a fervent belief in education and young Michael received a good one, at Llanelli Grammar School. While there, he performed an act of daring, which, had he been in uniform, might have earned him a gallantry decoration.

Llanelli Grammar was not just famous for academic reasons. It was also one of the nurseries of Welsh rugger. While it would be an error to describe rugby as the school's religion - it was much too important for that - young Michael Howard was guilty of blasphemy. During his first year in the sixth form, he went to the headmaster to ask if he and other boys could play soccer. It was as dangerous as Oliver Twist's mission to the beadle, yet, astonishingly, his request was granted.

This early proof of his powers of persuasion was rapidly followed by other forensic triumphs. At Cambridge, where he read economics before switching to law, he was president of the union. After Cambridge, he took a gap year in the United States. It began with a debating tour: 40 colleges and universities in eight weeks. He then worked for a New York law firm. That sojourn in America not only left him with an abiding affection for the country. It also enabled him to indulge further in his cultural tastes, which are of the lowest.

Just how low they are might come as a surprise to members of the wider public who have seen him only on the box. Mr Howard is a devotee of pop music of the 1960s. At Cambridge, where he was "a dashing figure" in the words of Celia Haddon, now a writer, he once told her that she must come to a pop concert. A wonderful new group was playing, who would go on to great things. That evening, they were still only second on the bill. They were the Beatles.

When Mr Howard was Home Secretary, he had a close protection team and a police driver. As he got into the car, there would be a threefold ritual. He would turn up the pop music to full volume; he would remind the driver not to go above 70mph; he would then fall asleep. As soon as the Home Secretary was comfortably in slumber, the volume would be diminished and the accelerator depressed. Police drivers do not enjoy poodling around within the speed limit. But when the car reached 100mph, Mr Howard would awaken as if by instinct. Sound and speed would promptly be adjusted in opposite directions, until he fell asleep again. Then the cat and mouse procedure would be resumed.

I once asked Michael Howard if he ever listened to proper music. After rejecting my definition, he told me that his musical tastes extended to the heights of the aesthetic range. He liked jazz. When in New York, he had often gone to hear Thelonious Monk play. At the same time, he developed a lifelong interest in baseball and in the Boston Red Sox. The colour red is important in another sporting allegiance: Liverpool football club. If Mr Howard is otherwise engaged while Liverpool are playing, he cannot relax until he knows the score.

He also loves horse racing. To the surprise of his civil servants, he would sometimes interrupt meetings to watch an important race on television. To him, a racehorse is poetry in motion and as he describes the beauty of the spectacle, he will indulge in the lushest of lyricism.

His romanticism goes beyond the turf. As a young Tory, Michael Howard was drawn to the magnetism of Iain Macleod, a compelling figure and an inspiring speaker. Macleod, who died young and held high office only briefly, remains an elusive figure. Rather than seeking the admiration of posterity, his rhetoric was directed against the targets of the day, which means that it is impossible to identify a coherent Macleodism. But his Toryism sprang from generous social impulses as well as from a passionate belief in individual freedom. He was not a counting house Conservative. Neither is Michael Howard.

After Cambridge and New York, young Michael, by then a barrister, decided that he would give himself the rest of the 1960s to get into Parliament. If he failed, he would devote all his energies to the law. To his surprise, given his addiction to politics, he adhered to his resolution. But he never renounced all interest in politics, and did finally reach the Commons in 1983, by which time he had also taken silk and built up a serious practice at the planning bar.

Despite breaks for horse racing, he is an immensely hard-working politician. In one respect, this degree of dedication is surprising. It interferes with a delightful domestic life. In the 1960s, Sandra Howard, then a model, was one of the loveliest girls in England. Today, she still does some modelling, and retains all her beauty. She is also an extremely intelligent woman, and a quietly forceful one. Sandra has a slight stammer, but it is a mere vocal dimple which only adds enchantment to her voice.

The Howards met at a party. Conversation turned to literature. It emerged that Sandra had not read Tender Is The Night, one of Michael's favourite books. A copy was delivered the next day, and it was an appropriate beginning. More than 30 years later, the Howards still adore each other and can never find enough time to talk. They have two very clever children plus two cats, Prudence and Martha. If either moggy is out of sorts, Celia Haddon, also a cat expert, will receive instant and anguished requests for advice. Mr Howard has also done a lot to help the Cats' Protection League in his Folkestone constituency.

Cats, football, the Beatles, baseball, a marriage to one of the great beauties of her era: it is utterly removed from the Michael Howard as seen by many voters. It is impossible to explain the discrepancy, but the real man enjoys life and possesses undoubted moral qualities.

The latter sometimes works to his disadvantage as a practising politician. I first met him nearly 20 years ago, just after he arrived in the Commons. It was already clear that he would be made a minister in about five minutes. At that stage, the Thatcher government was running into problems apparent to the meanest intelligence. I mentioned them, and was irritated by the way in which Michael tried to deny their existence; we were fellow Tories. But that undeviating loyalty has remained with him. He will almost never make a disparaging comment about any of his colleagues, even in private. When he was Home Secretary, some journalists would complain to his political advisers that there was never any gossip over lunch: merely an austere reiteration of Home Office policy. So the advisers tried to ensure that before he went off to such lunches, they could provide him with a few anecdotes which were sufficiently innocent that he might be prepared to tell them without feeling indiscreet.

Cabinet ministers occasionally lose arguments in Cabinet committees. By the late Major period, some members of the Cabinet would respond to such defeats by leaking to the press and complaining that the Government had reached the wrong decision. That was never Mr Howard's way. He would argue in committee like seven devils and then, if he lost, go on The World at One to defend the case which he had just opposed. This does not mean that he was merely a political barrister ready to argue for any brief. It means that he was a principled politician, who understood that Cabinet government was a team game, which could work only if the players accepted the captain's rulings.

By 1997, Michael Howard had held high office. Given the scale of the Tory defeat, it seemed unlikely that there would be a rapid return. As he was in his late 50s, some of his friends assumed that he would go to the House of Lords and the City. Not a bit of it. "There is still so much to be done," he told one of his closest advisers. "We've got to sort out the public services. Labour will talk. One day, we will have to act." Defeat did not diminish his political energy and his zest for new challenges.

He will shortly face his greatest challenge. The coffin is ready; the grave is dug; the Tory party has prepared a short, dignified funeral service and the clergyman is ready with the prayer book. But the corpse is still walking around. That must shortly change. There will be a Tory leadership election, which Michael Howard will almost certainly win.

He will then receive the party's regalia. It remains to be seen whether they will consist of a crown and sceptre, or a crown of thorns and a poisoned chalice. But Michael Howard will not fail for lack of commitment. Despite the odds against him he will do his uttermost to persuade the electorate that his Tory party can offer them Thatcherism with a human face.

LIFE STORY

Born: 7 July 1941; son of Bernard and Hilda.

Family: Married Sandra Paul 1975, one son, one daughter and one stepson (Sholto Douglas-Home)

Education: Llanelli Grammar School; Peterhouse, Cambridge (MA economics, LLB)

Legal career: Called to the bar, 1963; QC 1982; Junior Counsel to the Crown 1980-2.

Political career: Contested Liverpool Edge Hill, 1966 and 1972; MP for Folkestone and Hythe since 1983. Parliamentary Private Secretary Solicitor General 1984-5; Parliamentary Under Secretary, Trade and Industry, 1985-7; Local Government Minister 1986-8, Water and Planning 1988-9; Housing and Planning 1992-3; Employment Secretary 1990-2; Environment Secretary 1992-3; Home Secretary 1993-97.

Opposition career: Contested the Tory leadership 1997; shadow Foreign Secretary 1997-1999; shadow Chancellor 2001-present.

He says: "We have an excellent leader. We should all rally round behind him. We should all support him because if we do we can show the people of our country that we can provide them with a better way of doing things."

They say: "There is something of the night about him" - Ann Widdecombe

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