Party leaders are planning to use law-and-order issues to restore morale at the Tory conference in Blackpool in October and Mr Howard will have the task of leading the revival.
The Home Secretary is expected to be given rousing support at the conference. However, right-wing Tory MPs have begun to doubt his Thatcherite tendencies.
They are prepared to tolerate his change of mind over the death penalty and his opposition to its reintroduction, but members of the Thatcherite No Turning Back Group say they were disappointed when he addressed them recently.
One ardent Thatcherite said: 'He came to an NTB group dinner. The torch was there for the taking. He didn't want it. You have to decide where you are coming from. Margaret Thatcher left no one in any doubt about that, but no one is really sure about Michael Howard.'
The charge against Mr Howard may be that he is being too loyal to John Major. Mr Howard, 52, is regarded as the only right-wing candidate for the leadership to stop Kenneth Clarke if Mr Major fell under a bus.
But he is also a contemporary of Mr Clarke's. They were members of the Cambridge Conservative mafia in the early 1960s and were presidents of the Union in successive years before becoming barristers and entering Parliament.
By taking a tough line on prisons, Mr Howard is certain to cultivate support on the right of the party, which remains a powerful force on the Tory backbenches.
But in a leadership contest with Mr Clarke, few believe he could win. That is why the right is doing all it can to ensure that Mr Major does not stand down.Reuse content