A political heavyweight, the one Tory that Blair fears

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Indy Politics

Michael Howard may be publicly ridiculed by Labour as a has-been, an authoritarian and even a Count Dracula figure but in private he is seen as the one Tory that Tony Blair truly fears in the House of Commons.

Prime Minister's Questions, if Mr Howard seizes the Tory mantle, will be a battle between political Titans - and Titans that know each other well.

The MP for Folkestone and Hythe is an old sparring partner of the Prime Minister and they are familiar with one another's political weaknesses, intellectual strengths and rhetorical tricks. The two faced each other in the House of Commons for years when the tables were turned and Tony Blair was a young, up-and-coming opposition MP and Michael Howard was a feared member of the Cabinet.

Mr Howard even then had a reputation for ruthlessness and forensic cruelty. But Mr Blair held his own against his adversary, although he was 13 years his junior and had never held government office.

Their jousts at the despatch box spanned Mr Howard's stints at Employment and Home Affairs and were seen by contemporaries as some of the most evenly-matched bouts in Westminster. "They were both quick and smart. It was an even contest between the younger man and the Cabinet minister," said one former MP, now in the House of Lords.

And the two had much in common. Not only were both on the ascendant in their political careers but both were barristers with a killer instinct and an affection for no-holds-barred contests. They faced each other over crime, terrorism and the minimum wage. During most struggles, the points were even. They delighted in hyperbole and insults; in debates that combined high drama with an element of theatre.

The jousting matches between the ambitious member for Sedgefield and his older opponent helped forge Tony Blair's reputation as a formidable Commons performer. When John Smith died in May 1994 he won the backing of MPs who had admired his stamina and steel at the despatch box. Mr Blair's catchphrase "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" met with an equally snappy riposte: "I know what causes crime: criminals."

In one parliamentary battle on cutting crime, Mr Blair accused the Home Secretary - ironically as it turned out - of spin. "People want a strategy to fight crime that works. They want one that will cut crime. They want a strategy that, above all, is geared not to catching headlines so that ministers can give the illusion of activity but to stopping crime so that communities become safer," the Labour MP said.

"For 14 years, the Tories have had the chance in government to put things right but there have been 14 years of Tory failure."

Earlier, Mr Blair had attempted to wrongfoot his opponent by ridiculing his backing for a fictional character in the BBC Radio 4 soap opera, The Archers. "The Home Secretary would certainly do less damage in Ambridge than he does in Whitehall," he said.

The two traded punches over terrorism in March 1994 with Mr Howard implying that Labour was soft on terrorists. "It is one thing to loathe terrorism; it is another thing to translate that loathing into practical action," he said. They even faced each other over the minimum wage, in an acrimonious dispute in March 1992, when Mr Howard launched a tirade of criticism against his young opponent. "If the point is to avoid people being poor, then his is an extraordinarily stupid way of doing it," challenged Mr Howard.

Last night former aides of Mr Blair said that he had a great deal of respect for his former opponent. "They respected each other. They each managed to score points against each other," said Tim Allan, former deputy Press Secretary at Downing Street.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister made it clear he personally admired his old adversary but was not concerned about facing him again. "He was a good performer in the House of Commons," he said on BBC radio. "No, I am not worried."

At Westminster there was frenzied anticipation at the prospect of a renewed bout between the two heavyweights. The question is: will the contest still be even? Mr Blair is no longer an opposition MP but a Prime Minister with six years' experience of political battles.

And Mr Howard no longer has all the trappings of ministerial power, including the support of hundreds of civil servants to help him.

Furthermore, in today's age, the main battleground may no longer be the urbane arena of the House of Commonsbut the harsher environment of the television studio. Ten years ago, a victorious bout at Prime Minister's Questions could earn favourable headlines. But in 2003, being a slick performer in front of the cameras matters more. It is here, in the glare of the television lights, that Tony Blair is in his element and Mr Howard is least at ease.

Poles apart? How the rivals compare and contrast

MICHAEL HOWARD

BORN: 7 July 1941, Gorseinon, South Wales

EDUCATED: Llanelli Grammar School and Peterhouse, Cambridge

PARENTS: Bernard and Hilda Howard (Hecht), who ran a clothing shop in Llanelli. His father died aged 49

CAREER: Successful barrister (QC), specialising in planning

FAMILY: Married Sandra Paul in 1975, former model who was married three times before. One son, one daughter, one stepson

RELIGION: Jewish

CONTEMPORARIES AT UNIVERSITY: Norman Lamont, Kenneth Clarke, Norman Fowler, Leon Brittan, John Gummer

INTERESTS: Watching football (Swansea and Liverpool), baseball, (New York Mets), played guitar in a skiffle band

POLITICAL EXPERIENCE: MP since June 1983. PPS Solicitor General, Minister for many departments. Secretary of State for Employment; the Environment; Home. Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, 1997-99; shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, 2001-03

VISION: Tough on crime, Eurosceptic, strong economy

STRENGTHS: Experienced, articulate, intelligent, witty and ruthless. Resilient; brilliant debater, hard working

WEAKNESSES: Seen as aloof and cold. Age. Looks remote on television.Has enemies. Too businesslike. His parliamentary seat is vulnerable to Liberal Democrats

HIGH POINTS: Becoming Home Secretary in 1993. Becoming front-runner to lead the Conservative Party

LOW POINT: Finishing last with only 23 votes in the 1997 Tory leadership election

TONY BLAIR

BORN: 6 May 1953, Edinburgh

EDUCATED: Fettes College, Edinburgh, and St John's College, Oxford

PARENTS: Leo Charles Lynton Blair, a law lecturer at Durham University who died at 40, and Hazel Elizabeth Blair

CAREER: Successful barrister, specialised in trade union and industrial law

FAMILY: Married to Cherie Booth, a barrister, with four children, including Leo, born while Blair was Prime Minister

RELIGION: Anglican who has also attended Catholic services. His wife is Catholic

CONTEMPORARIES AT UNIVERSITY: Mark Ellen, the editor of Word magazine, Adam Sharples, a Treasury civil servant. Peter Thomson, Australian Anglican minister

INTERESTS: Family, playing guitar, exercise

POLITICAL EXPERIENCE: MP since June 1983. Opposition spokesman on many subjects. Prime Minister for six and a half years

VISION: Providing opportunity for all and creating a decent Britain free from fear and crime. Believes Britain has an international role to stamp out terrorism

STRENGTHS

Charisma and ability to relate to ordinary people; clever, articulate and quick-witted. Good grasp of detail; tough. Sense of humour. Excellent on television

WEAKNESSES: Seen by a growing number as insincere. Losing trust among the public; a shrinking circle of allies in Government; can seem inflexible; evangelical

HIGH POINTS: Winning the 1997 election with a landslide. The first Labour prime minister to win consecutive general elections

LOW POINTS: Losing support of Labour over Iraq war; death of Dr David Kelly; dogged by accusations over spin

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