From old Thatcherite to bookies' red-hot favourite

Only five months ago, Michael Howard was adamant he would not stand as Tory leader, even if Iain Duncan Smith fell prey to a coup from his backbenchers.

"I am not going to stand. Ever. I am not going to stand," he told The Independent. "I have repeatedly ruled that out." The bookmakers were not convinced and in May were offering odds of 7-1 that the former home secretary would be crowned as Mr Duncan Smith's successor.

Yesterday, even before Mr Duncan Smith's failed confidence vote, the bookies had revised their odds, making Mr Howard the hot favourite to replace him. By the evening they had shortened to 7/2 on.

Michael Howard was elected 20 years ago as MP for Folkestone and Hythe after a successful and lucrative career as a barrister. Only a year after winning his seat his political talent was recognised and he became a parliamentary private secretary. A year later he was on the junior rungs of a ministerial career.

Mr Howard made his mark during his four years as Home Secretary, reducing crime by 18 per cent and introducing the first closed-circuit television cameras to British streets. He also piloted the first national DNA database and made slogans such as "prison works" and "I know what causes crime: criminals" into catch-phrases of the Major years.

But 62-year-old Mr Howard, a Eurosceptic hardliner who once proposed removing TVs from prison-cells because jail should be "decent but austere", managed to cultivate enemies as well as admirers during his time in the cabinet. His former colleague, Ann Widdecombe, delivered one of the most scathing put-downs in recent political history when she said there was "something of the night" about him. Friends of Mr Howard claimed there was a hint of anti-Semitism in the remark, while critics said it referred to his cold-blooded aloofness.

Last night Miss Widdecombe appeared on the verge of forgiving her old adversary, praising him for his loyalty to Mr Duncan Smith and his ability to expose flaws in government policy.

Michael Howard is one of the most effective and articulate performers on the Tory benches, but he has a reputation for being imperturbable and remote. Relations with John Redwood were so frosty at one point that as ministers they communicated only through their private secretaries. MPs say that when he was a minister, he used to treat them as if they were military adjutants.

It was no surprise to colleagues when in the 1997 Tory leadership contest he came last, with only 23 votes from fellow MPs. But since that humiliation, Mr Howard has bounced back with style - partly thanks to Mr Duncan Smith who summoned him from the back benches to be shadow Chancellor.

In the past two years, the Welsh-born MP has succeeded in shrugging off his reputation as an old-time Thatcherite and member of the Major government. He recently had an image makeover with new spectacles, shorter hair and brighter jackets.

His stock rose swiftly as he bruised his opponents at the dispatch box, with aggressive performances and withering ripostes. He has dented the armour of the supposedly indestructible Gordon Brown and drew the loudest cheers from the back benches for years when he ridiculed Tony Blair's attempts to crack down on the Fire Brigades Union. "He was trying to play Margaret Thatcher," he declared. "I know Margaret Thatcher. This Prime Minister is no Margaret Thatcher."

Mr Howard is no stranger to Mr Blair at the dispatch box. They faced each other ten years ago, when Mr Howard was in the cabinet and young Mr Blair was opposition spokesman on employment and home affairs. It was an even contest, with the minister using his authority and courtroom skills to squash the MP for Sedgefield frequently in debates. Last night Mr Howard's allies were confident their ruthless champion would relish another bout.

But while Mr Blair has the charm and media skills to win over the public, Mr Howard has until now eschewed spin. Despite his skills as an orator, his detractors say he does not project the human qualities needed to win over voters in a 24-hour TV age.

The irony is that Mr Howard does possess many attributes that his more populist opponents - including Mr Blair - would not flinch from exploiting. He is kind and thoughtful, with many interests outside politics. At school he played guitar and sang in a skiffle band and he is an avid football and baseball fan. His wife, Sandra Paul, is a former model of considerable charm and warmth. And he has more than a passing knowledge of the Beatles, naming his two cats Martha and Prudence.

But Mr Howard is a private character who shies away from political small talk. He may be the Tories' best heavyweight hope of success, but he will need more than ruthlessness to succeed against Labour. He will have to emerge from the shadows - skiffle band, baseball and all.

THE CV: MICHAEL HOWARD

BORN
7 July 1941, in Gorseinon, Wales

EDUCATION
Llanelli Grammar School; Peterhouse College, Cambridge

CAREER
1964: Called to the Bar, Inner Temple
1983: Elected Tory MP for Folkestone and Hythe
1985-87: Parliamentary under-secretary of state, DTI
1990-92: Secretary of State for Employment
1992-93: Secretary of State for Environment
1993-97: Home Secretary
1997: Conservative foreign affairs spokesman
2001: Shadow Chancellor

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