Law and order promises put Howard on the spot: Heather Mills reports on a testing time awaiting the Home Secretary at this week's Tory party conference

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MICHAEL HOWARD and Lord Archer were the darlings of last year's Tory party conference - a double act to whip the faithful to slavering law and order anticipation. At the end of his denouncement of crime, Lord Archer begged the Home Secretary. 'Michael, we say to you: 'Stand and deliver'.'

Mr Howard stood and, to rapturous applause, he promised, but a year on he has failed to deliver - a failure that may yet cost him his Home Office life.

He comes to this week's gathering at Bournemouth as the Home Secretary who declared in the face of decades of penal research: 'Prison works', only to be unhappily mocked last month by a handful of the nation's nastiest inmates, who messed with Semtex and guns while eating lobster takeaways in what was supposedly Britain's most secure jail.

He comes also with a reputation of a Home Secretary who uniquely in 16 months of office has managed to make enemies within every section of the criminal justice system, from the police through to the judges. And he comes as the Home Secretary who on Sunday provoked one of the biggest demonstrations on London's streets against a piece of legislation - the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill. Not since the ill-fated poll tax (Michael Howard was also one of its architects) has a Bill united in opposition so many people from such diverse backgrounds.

However, it is upon the Bill that Mr Howard will have to rely when he stands to defend his record. For contained it in are most of the 27 steps to law and order outlined to ovation last year in Blackpool - but yet to be enacted.

To a party which had expected the Bill on the statute books by the summer, it may not prove good enough to say, 'It is coming soon.' Particularly as the delay was caused by the Bill's mauling in the Lords, some of the deepest wounds inflicted by Conservative peers. In fact shifting alliances of peers, lawyers, judges, police, clergy and magistrates forced 40 defeats or concessions on the Bill and the equally controversial Police and Magistrates Courts Act.

And while at the end of the day many at the conference will be delighted by the Bill's aim to stamp on squatters, ravers, hunt saboteurs and the like, many more will be asking: 'What about the real criminals - the burglars, rapists, murderers and drug dealers?' Mr Howard will no doubt tell them the crime rate has shown the sharpest drop for 40 years. But he will know crime figures are dangerous ground - they depend on whose statistics you are citing and crimes of violence are continuing an upward trend.

So Mr Howard will have to produce something more concrete for Bournemouth. He will announce tough new regimes in prisons. He will remind delegates of plans for harsher community penalties. He will elaborate on the law and order initiatives outlined in John Major's 'yob culture speech' last month - a three-year plan to tackle drugs and drug related crime, more partnership initiatives, and heavier penalties.

And his rabbit out of the hat is likely to be the introduction of identity cards, hinted at by Mr Major. The fact that Mr Major chose to put law and order back on the agenda before the conference is seen as a sign of his continuing faith in Mr Howard, despite low points in their relationship. It may also strengthen Mr Major's position to have a slightly damaged right-winger in a senior post.

There is also a need for stability (the past five years have seen as many Home Secretaries) in what is regarded as one of the most difficult ministries. Prisons will always be volatile, criminals are always going to grab headlines. 'It is an impossible job,' one minister said. 'The emotions of the public and the demands of the tabloids can never be satisfied.'

But that, even Mr Howard's allies will argue, is where he went wrong. A more astute parliamentarian, argued one, 'would remain aloof from all this, not jump immediately and promise instant solutions. If you set yourself up as a cockshy, then you can be sure you are going to be hit'.

Mr Howard's friends say he cannot be held personally responsible for every incident in jail. They believe his 'tough on crime' credentials are established with the public and that he personally carries no blame for delays in legislation.

However, a recent poll of 50 local Conservative chairmen in the Sunday Times showed only one in four were convinced Mr Howard was doing a good job and 27 said they were disatisfied with the government's law and order record.

This year, in the likely absence of Lord Archer after publicity surrounding his Anglia television share deals, Mr Howard will have to stand alone to defend his law and order credentials. It may not be enough to rely on a reputation as the most right-wing Home Secretary since Henry Brooke.

(Photograph omitted)