New leader takes charge with hint of Portillo role

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Indy Politics

Michael Howard made Tory party unity his central theme yesterday, with a stern warning that he would not allow "snipers from the sidelines" to undermine his leadership.

An extraordinary week of political drama was completed when he was officially confirmed in the House of Commons as the unopposed successor to Iain Duncan Smith. As part of his pledge to lead from the centre, he wasted no time in ditching Mr Duncan Smith's hardline policy on tax cuts, stating that public service improvements had to take priority.

His "coronation" prompted the first government attacks on his record in office, with ministers depicting him as an unrepentant right-winger.

Moments after formally taking over, Mr Howard hinted he might offer senior posts to Michael Portillo and Kenneth Clarke. There should be "no bystanders" on the Opposition benches, Mr Howard told the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. He said: "We won't win an election unless we work as a team. We must rediscover the habit of thinking the best of each other. We must rediscover the virtues of mutual support and friendship."

Later, in a speech in Putney, Mr Howard declared he would not promise tax cuts unless they were "backed by rock-solid saving in wasteful spending". The Tory approach would be to "promise less, deliver more" and oppose the "bullying" of families and employees by Whitehall, the EU, trade unions and corporations.

Mr Howard emphasised his "responsible" approach to policy in an interview with BBC News. Asked if tax cuts would be in the Tory manifesto, he replied: "That's a hope, but it's not a promise."

The speed of the bloodless coup was underlined when the party's board announced his leadership would not be subjected to a formal ratification ballot of the membership. After "overwhelming representations" from members, "informal consultation" with activists would instead be conducted over the weekend.

Last night, Mr Howard made the first appointments to his private office. Stephen Sherbourne, Margaret Thatcher's former political secretary, will be his chief of staff. Rachel Whetstone, his special adviser when he was Home Secretary, will be his political secretary.

Mr Howard is not expected to announce a full Shadow Cabinet until Monday at the earliest. He told MPs he and the party had changed since losing office and now it was time "to look ahead, not back". The Tories could not depend on Labour failure, economic downturns or "any other brigade of the US cavalry riding to our aid".

Peter Hain, Leader of the Commons, underlined the Government's fears about Mr Howard when he suggested Labour voters in Folkestone and Hythe should vote tactically for the second-placed Liberal Democrats to unseat the Tory leader. Mr Hain said: "Of course, that Labour vote at the last election will be looking at the best way of removing the leader of the Conser- vative Party."

Senior ministers, led by Tony Blair, are to launch an onslaught against Mr Howard's record in an attempt to scupper his attempt to reposition himself as a mainstream Tory. He has, for example, called for the party to be "capable of representing all Britain and all Britons". Labour officials have compiled a dossier portraying him as an unrepentant right-winger with hardline economic and social views. "We intend to burst his bubble very quickly," one Labour source said.

Within minutes of his election, a succession of ministers called him "Mr Poll Tax." As Local Government minister, he was in charge of introducing the poll tax in 1988. Even after the scheme helped to oust Margaret Thatcher in 1990 and provoked riots, he insisted he still believed in it.

Ian McCartney, the Labour chairman, said: "Michael Howard won't be able to escape his extremist past. His leadership will serve as a constant reminder to the British people of his responsibility for the poll tax, interest rates at 15 per cent and three million unemployed." Labour argues his record is relevant because it means he will fight the next election on a platform of "cuts, charges and privatisation".

Mr Howard's relaunch may be hampered by his stance on gay rights. He was the minister who brought in Clause 28 of the Local Government Act, banning the "promotion" of homosexuality. Last year, he demanded and won a tough shadow cabinet stance against adoptions by unmarried and gay couples. A three-line whip was imposed, when socially liberal Conservatives wanted a free vote. This provoked the resignation of John Bercow from the Shadow Cabinet and renewed Tory infighting.

Mr Howard is best known as a tough Home Secretary from 1993 to 1997 and has repeatedly trumpeted the 18 per cent fall in crime under his tenure.

Labour wants to revive memories of his unpopularity in office, which was marred by clashes with the judiciary and embarrassing prison escapes.

Labour will also claim he ignored wide areas of policy, including child protection, dealing with sex offenders and inconsistencies in court sentences around the country.

The Government is also considering the politically tricky step of comparing Mr Howard's record on asylum with its own. It will argue that, at the end of the Tory administration, it took 20 months to process an initial asylum claim, compared with the current two-month wait. But the Tories are bound to point to the steady rise in asylum-seeker numbers from about 60,000 in 1997 to more than 100,000 today.

Mr Howard faces an early dilemma over whether to continue Tories attack on moves to limit the right to trial by jury. As Home Secretary, he tried the same step but lost in the Lords. He could also face embarrassment if he maintains Tory opposition to national identity cards. Mr Howard proposed them at the 1994 Tory conference, saying: "In time, carrying your ID card would seem as natural as carrying a credit card."

Labour will also highlight his record as Employment Secretary, accusing him of blocking improved workers' conditions and opposing the national minimum wage.