Howard must cure his party's addiction to backstabbing

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Indy Politics

Arriving late for his first public speech as the new leader of the Tory party, Michael Howard cited traffic and blamed the Government. This delighted his audience of parliamentary candidates. But it didn't quite dispel the notion that the real reason for the delay was the need to wait for the TV networks to cover the rather bigger stories of this news-packed day before going live to the carefully selected Tory-Labour marginal of Putney where Mr Howard politely reintroduced himself to the wider electorate yesterday.

If so, it's a modest but impressive sign of a new professionalism and media-savviness from a party now led by this most professional of politicians. His choice of two talented recruits to his entourage suggests he has no intention of presiding over the kind of rackety and faction-ridden Conservative Central Office that helped to see off his predecessor. Stephen Sherbourne, who ran the offices of both Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher, is a serious figure. Rachel Whetstone, Mr Howard's personable and sensible former special adviser, has genuine political skills as well as the personal ones.

What Mr Howard will know, however, is that this won't be enough to establish his party's claim, as he put it yesterday, to be a "credible and appealing alternative government". His first task will be to maintain - for far longer than the brief honeymoon he is now certain to enjoy - the new-found unity in a party that has been for a decade pathologically addicted to backstabbing and division.

The second process - one he began yesterday with his remarks about having mellowed since he was a draconian, headline-chasing, and self- confessedly unpopular Home Secretary - is to reinvent himself. For while Michael Howard's coronation yesterday does indeed reflect a flight back to competence for the Conservative Party, there is something retro in its choice of a veteran from the Thatcherite right. Politically as well as in the much less important sense of his 62 years, this is skipping a generation in reverse.

Such a reinvention is by no means impossible. The last Welsh leader of Her Majesty's Opposition before Mr Howard, Neil Kinnock, achieved it politically after a decisive apostasy from his hard-left antecedents. Yesterday Mr Howard marked one unmistakable break with his immediate predecessor when he warned that any future tax cuts would have to be matched by hard, bankable, and costed savings.

The question, however, is whether Mr Howard needs - and if so has the capacity - to go even further than Mr Kinnock did in turning his back on the ideological traditions that spawned him. Mr Kinnock began the long march back to electoral credibility by reversing the party's core policies on tax, defence and Europe as well as standing up to the extremists in his party in the famous 1985 attack on Militant.

The conventional wisdom in a Tory party that has rediscovered its interest in power is that no such ideological U-turns are necessary. Only time, the opinion polls, and next year's crucial mid-term elections will show whether that is right. But what is clear is that Mr Howard has yet to fulfil one other feature of the Kinnock accession to party leadership, which was a unique ability to unite the really big figures of his party around his leadership. The first Kinnock Shadow Cabinet contained several big men of the party - Denis Healey and Roy Hattersley among them - who didn't vote for him, had every reason to distrust his leadership but were still willing to serve.

It isn't to discount speculation that Michael Portillo can be persuaded to rejoin the Shadow Cabinet Mr Howard is expected to construct next week to suggest that the new Tory leader is unlikely to achieve that measure of unity. For there is little or no sign as yet that the biggest and most popular Conservative in the country, Kenneth Clarke, is likely to return to a Shadow Cabinet still dominated by people who disagree with him on fundamental issues, including Europe. By all accounts Mr Howard simply hasn't felt prepared to offer him the kind of concessions in terms of policy and freedom to disagree that would make it impossible for Mr Clarke to resist without attracting charges of disloyalty.

Two important consequences flow from this. One is that these are depressing times for pro-Europeans. As the Government moves back on to the defensive on Europe, having abandoned all hope of joining the eurozone before the next election and perhaps for long after that, the pro-European voice in British voice has been stilled as it hasn't been for many years. Mr Clarke remains outside the politicial mainstream; Gordon Brown is raising the rhetorical stakes in his opposition to parts of the planned new EU constitutional treaty; and even the supposedly pro-European Liberal Democrats seem unconfident in their convictions. Yesterday's accession by Mr Howard, a man whose Euroscepticism is almost as deeply ingrained as that of his predecessor - even if he intends to express it in less voter-unfriendly ways - marks a moment when it may turn out that the truly pro-European argument was essentially lost, perhaps for a generation.

But the other consequence is for the Conservative Party itself. One of the reasons that Mr Clarke came top in the 2001 leadership poll of MPs - as Mr Howard came last in the one in 1997 - is that he remains the Conservative with the longest reach into the uncommitted electorate.

It may be, of course, that Mr Howard, easily the ablest leader since the Tories lost power, can overcome this signal handicap. The likelihood remains that he will ensure the Conservatives lose the next election with dignity, rather than actually win it.

But he has at least one of glimmer of hope that he can overcome this widespread assumption; the old mantra that governments lose elections rather than oppositions win them. Unless Labour can end the divisions at the top fairly soon, it could just be on its way to proving that the mantra is true.