One hundred days in the life of a Tory leader thirsty for power

His party has enjoyed a revival in the polls - but how much closer is he to Downing St?
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Indy Politics

It was Iain Duncan Smith who said that party leaders have only a few months to convince the voters that they are up to the job. He failed the test, but his successor, Michael Howard, reaches his 100 days as Tory leader today in better shape.

Mr Howard's allies admit it is too early to claim he has won over the public. But he has put the Tories back in the game.

Mr Howard has sorted out his party, itself no mean feat given the division under Mr Duncan Smith. He enjoys the respect of his MPs in a way that his predecessor never did. The unity which saw him elected unopposed last November has held firm.

After he landed the job, Mr Howard was alarmed that many voters had little or no idea what the Tories stood for. He started to outline his personal beliefs - listing 16 "I believe" statements in an advertisement last month - and has now begun to put policy flesh on these bones on social issues and Europe. Further announcements on economic strategy, the council tax and university funding will follow.

With an election expected next year, there is little time to waste. Mr Howard knows that, at 62, he may only have one shot at becoming Prime Minister.

LEADERSHIP

Where Mr Duncan Smith brought despair, Mr Howard has brought hope. His strong, decisive leadership has united his party. He has fulfilled his promised to lead the party "from the centre", refusing to recognise the divide between "mods" (modernisers) and "rockers" (traditionalists) which bedevilled his predecessor. He has shrewdly kept the Tory left on board by including Tim Yeo and David Curry in his Shadow Cabinet and making peace with Kenneth Clarke, one of his panel of "wise men".

He has streamlined the Shadow Cabinet from a cumbersome 26 to 12. He has a strong team of close advisers, such as Stephen Sherbourne, Rachel Whetstone and Guy Black.

He was accused of "opportunism" when he opposed Tony Blair's plans for university top-up fees, but came very close to inflicting a humiliating Commons defeat on him.

Verdict: Very good - but things could only get better.

TAX AND SPENDING

The Tories have issued several conflicting signals on whether they will promise tax cuts in their general election manifesto. In recent days, Mr Howard has set out a "moral" case for low taxes, but there have been contradictory hints that the Tories would spend more on health and education than Labour. Mr Howard's instincts are to cut taxes, in line with his vision of a "small" state in which people are "big." But he is reluctant to offer a firm pledge, fearing that this would allow Labour to claim that his party would cut vital frontline services.

Verdict: A mess that needs to be cleared up fast.

SOCIAL POLICY

When he became Tory leader, Mr Howard promised that he would create a more inclusive, outward-looking party "for all Britain and all Britons".

In a significant U-turn, Mr Howard announced on Monday that he would vote for a Government Bill to allow gay couples to register their partnerships, giving them more legal rights. Tory MPs will be given a free vote on the measure. It was a clear attempt to shed his image as a former hardline Home Secretary. But not everyone is convinced and one Tory frontbencher said: "I suspect he doesn't really believe in all this stuff, but he knows that we have got to reposition ourselves ahead of the election."

Further policies will follow on issues such as child care as the Tories try to convince the public that they are not harking back to the 1980s.

Verdict: Must continue to reach out rather than preach to Tory converted.

IRAQ AND HUTTON

The worst day of Mr Howard's leadership came on 28 January, when Lord Hutton's report on the death of Dr David Kelly was published. The Tory leader had expected the former law lord to criticise both the Government and the BBC, but the one-sided report left him bereft of ammunition.

With hindsight, Mr Howard had invested too much hope in Lord Hutton. But he bounced back, winning his demand for an inquiry into the intelligence about Iraq's WMD - with a little help from George Bush.

A week after the Hutton report, Mr Howard had Mr Blair on the defensive over his admission that he did not know that the 45-minute claim related to battlefield rather than longer range weapons.

However, Mr Howard's ability to criticise Mr Blair over the Iraq war has been limited by the Tories' support for it. That was why, unlike the Liberal Democrats, he decided his party should sit on the WMD inquiry.

Verdict: Making the best of a bad hand.

EUROPE

In Berlin last night, Mr Howard set out what aides called a "positive Eurosceptic" vision, arguing against Labour's charge that the Tories want to leave the European Union by saying that Britain should be a "positive and influential" member. But he suggested Europe "needs to go in a new direction".

He mapped out a vision of a flexible EU in which groups of countries could forge ahead with further integration if they wished but could not force other member states to join them.

The Tory leader called for fishing to be returned to the control of national governments and reiterated the Tories' opposition to the single currency.

Verdict: Encouraging noises ahead of European Parliament elections in June.

PARLIAMENT

Mr Duncan Smith rarely troubled Mr Blair during their weekly joust at Prime Minister's Questions. In contrast, Mr Howard has shaded his contests with Mr Blair, forcing the Prime Minister to raise his game.

Mr Howard's greatest hit came when he recalled his grammar school education and declared that he would not take any lessons about access to university from the public school-educated Mr Blair. He also made a crucial intervention during a speech by the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, over the 45-minute claim.

Parliamentary skirmishes may have less impact on the voters than in the past, but they are important. Mr Blair has a fight on his hands.

Verdict: No knockout blow yet, but ahead on points.

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