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Sandra Howard: Ready for a bumpy ride

As her husband turns to immigration in a desperate bid for votes, Sandra Howard is doing her own bit for the Tories. Sholto Byrnes joins the former model on the road and wonders if the key to No 10 is what she's really after

If the guard at Charing Cross Station is aware that he is talking to the wife of the Leader of the Opposition, he makes a good job of hiding it. "It's on the screen, luv," he replies, when Sandra Howard asks which carriages are for Folkestone. "Even a six-year-old can read it."

If the guard at Charing Cross Station is aware that he is talking to the wife of the Leader of the Opposition, he makes a good job of hiding it. "It's on the screen, luv," he replies, when Sandra Howard asks which carriages are for Folkestone. "Even a six-year-old can read it."

Michael Howard was elected to Parliament in 1983, so Sandra Howard, 64, has had over 20 years to become accustomed to the political arena. I don't think that she's ever found it easy, though. Her speech is barely above a whisper, and her stammer frequently causes her to get stuck on the beginning syllables of words. As a highly successful model in the Sixties, photographed by Norman Parkinson and adorning the cover of Vogue, she was in the public eye decades before her husband earned a reputation as a draconian Home Secretary in the Major government. But it was her looks, not her views (which she has admitted are slightly to the left of her husband's), that were sought.

Even today's engagement, where we are headed, in her husband's constituency with a local businessmen's group, the Folkestone Lunch Club, is solely about her presence; she is not required to make a speech. Is she looking forward to the election, I ask. "I don't know, is the honest answer," she says. "I'm petrified, obviously. But I have this feeling that there are a lot of people who haven't decided yet, and it could be one of those rare occasions when it all happens in the three weeks of the campaign."

Will they want Michael Howard? The most sympathetic observer would be hard-pushed to answer "Yes" to such a question. As Tory leader, Howard initially shone (not hard when the comparison was with a hapless predecessor, Iain Duncan Smith), as the "grown-ups" were seen to be in charge of the Conservative Party again. But memories remained strong of his time as a minister. Ann Widdecombe's jibe that there was "something of the night" about Howard returned to haunt him, just as cartoonists, playing on his Transylvanian roots, portrayed him as Dracula haunting the corridors of power. "If you go into politics, you have to expect that," Sandra Howard says. The polls are gloomy, and the chances that the Howards will be moving into Downing Street remain slim.

Not that Sandra Howard would ever admit that, of course. When I ask about the security presence that went with the job when her husband was Home Secretary, and how she would have to endure that again if he becomes PM, she answers very carefully. "I think for now, not for the future." Any questions that suggest that the Howards might have some spare time on their hands after the election - about plans for their 30th wedding anniversary this summer, for instance - are also batted away. "There are so many things to think about at this point in time," she says. Another query, inadvertently implying that the Tories are unlikely to win, is greeted with silence. She simply doesn't answer.

Sandra is possibly Michael Howard's greatest asset in terms of PR. Her glamorous and slightly racy past humanises the Thatcher stormtrooper of the Eighties with the lawyerly manner and peculiar accent. It also helps that she is terribly nice. By the time she met Howard, the former Sandra Paul was on her third marriage. Her son Sholto, by her first husband Robin Douglas-Home (nephew of Sir Alec), was conceived at the home of his godfather, who just happened to be Frank Sinatra.

Despite the four marriages, about which she is still faintly embarrassed, Sandra Howard is very much an old-fashioned politician's wife. "If you had a full-time job now, it would be totally accepted. But when Michael was selected, I remember one old colonel saying that they gave points for the wives, too." And she is definitely not a career woman like Ffion Hague, or, for that matter, Cherie Booth, QC. That is not to say that she doesn't have her own plans. Now that the Howards children, Nicholas and Larissa, are grown up, Sandra is working on her first novel, Love in High Profile, and being advised by the leading literary agent Michael Sissons. Fitting it in with the political life, however, is tricky. Would she like to lock herself away in a cottage for a month to finish it? "I'd love to," she says. "You get wrapped up in the characters and they live and breathe with you, talk to you. It's escapism, because you can get people to do things that you wish you had done." Like? "Going to Machu Picchu, crossing America."

In the meantime, Sandra Howard cannot escape dealing with the public, which is clearly still something of a trial for her. "I think going for the day somewhere, with a local candidate, is less difficult than walking up to people's front doors. That's what I find hardest, I always imagine that the last thing people want is someone asking them how they're going to vote." Has she ever had a bad reaction on the doorstep? "Somebody once said to me, was I going to leave now or should he put his cats on me? And recently, a man with a string of naked children in tow - it was bathtime - started hurling things out of the house when he saw us... But that's two out of thousands."

Soon afterwards, we enter the constituency. Sandra Howard knows exactly when it is that we cross the boundary into Folkestone and Hythe. Growing up in the dying days of empire, first in Rhodesia and then in Singapore, where her father, an RAF doctor, was posted, Sandra lacked the sense of constancy that her sister gained from being sent home to boarding school. "I didn't have that because I was changing schools all the time." As a result, the constituency is a home to her. "I read the local papers, and, after 21 years, I know who lots of the people are, the councillors, the worthies - and the not-so-worthies."

Meeting us at the station is one such worthy, Harold Stenning, chairman of the Folkestone Lunch Club. At La Tavernetta, where the lunch is to be held, a group of mainly male late-middle-aged businessmen stand by the bar. They seem delighted to see her. Not all of them, however, are quite so convinced by her husband. How has his becoming Tory leader affected his standing in the constituency, I ask a small of knot at one end of the bar. "It's fair to say that it has raised his profile," says Ben Sharp, a manager for HSBC. "With his slightly more esteemed role, it might help Folkestone move forward. But the perception is that he was elected as a stopgap. And the Conservative Party needs to be more diverse." Talk of diversity sits oddly amid this grey-suited, greying bunch.

Throughout it all, Sandra Howard mixes with the other members, oblivious to any less-than-flattering remarks about her husband, her face fixed in a polite smile. At lunch, she sits in the protective vicinity of Harold Stenning, who makes any introductions. Another member, Jim Birks has only recently joined the Tories. "My wife is active in the ladies' lunch club," he says, "and she says that Sandra's always there. I went round to the Howards' house to see what he's like." Mrs Howard seemed to be the hit with him, though. "She's very unassuming and down-to-earth. Not like Cherie Blair, who's all, 'I believe in the poor and socialism but I want a free designer dress'."

Even Birks doesn't reckon their MP's chances are high when it comes to defeating Labour. "It's sad, but it's like fighting a machine gun with a sword." If this reaches Sandra's ears, she doesn't let on.

It's a very different life to the one she experienced with her first husband Robin. In the mid-Sixties, they stayed several weeks with Frank Sinatra, about whom Robin Douglas-Home wrote a book, in Palm Springs and Hollywood. I ask her about that time, and she visibly relaxes. "Sinatra divided women into ladies and tramps, so you got put in one box or the other," she says. "I was there with my husband, so I was a lady. We chatted as friends. He said, 'Why don't you kids come along and follow me around a few recording studios?" Did she meet lots of Sinatra's pals? "Oh," she says, "we met them all - Marilyn Monroe, Bing Crosby..." Was he a good godfather to her son? "I can't say that he was an active godparent, but he did see Sholto a few times when he was in England. He took him to tea at Claridge's, and gave him a transistor. He had a caring side. He looked after people who'd fallen on hard times."

The problem with Sandra Howard's fourth husband, though, is that voters don't trust him to look after those who have fallen on hard times. I put it to her that the perception is that the Tory party is a harsh one. "I absolutely disagree, I really do," she says, passionately now, and thus roused to speak just a tiny bit louder. "I think you find more people putting themselves out for charity work than in any other party." I wasn't saying they are harsh, I say, just that that is the public perception of them. "I disagree with that, too," she says. "Everyone wants to reach the same end, to make lives better, more comfortable, happier. It's how you get there." She concedes that the Conservatives have not communicated successfully with the electorate. "I think where we did go wrong was that we didn't feel the need to present things in a way that was more acceptable. We didn't have a good bedside manner, but we're getting better."

Loyalty could be Sandra Howard's middle name (a recent report claimed that she was drafted in to talk her husband out of quitting during a "wobble" late last year), but only someone as blind to her husband's faults as I suspect she is could fail to find irony in the idea that Michael Howard has a good bedside manner. That is her charm, of course, and it does succeed in making one think better of him. Once Howard starts talking about tough restrictions on immigration, though, as he has just done, any softening of his image is forgotten. Rightly or wrongly, such policies appear to pander to the unreconstructed wing of the Tory party and beyond.

Sandra Howard's devotion to her husband is touching, but I doubt that even she believes that he is destined for the office of Prime Minister. And in her heart of hearts, she's probably rather relieved.