Special Report: The Howard audit

No one can say Michael Howard is untested in the intense heat of front-rank politics. He is the only Tory MP apart from Ken Clarke to have held one of the great offices of state. But as recently as 1999, focus groups said he embodied all their bad memories of Tory government. Here Andy McSmith unpacks the political baggage that Labour will do its best to exploit
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Something of the night

Possibly the most damaging aspect of his four years as Home Secretary is the reputation he acquired as an intolerant manager, quick to blame others when something went wrong. The most notorious example was in October 1995, when he sacked the head of the prisons service, Derek Lewis, after a couple of embarrassing jail breakouts. This inspired the comment by the former Prisons minister Ann Widdecombe, that Howard had "something of the night" about him. It also led to the most embarrassing television interview Mr Howard ever endured. While he was running for the party leadership in June 1997, Jeremy Paxman asked him the same direct question 14 times - about whether he had interfered in the operational running of the prisons - without eliciting a straight answer. Mr Howard also seemed to invite confrontations with judges, and brought upon himself a string of adverse court rulings. The most famous was when he decreed that the boys who murdered the toddler James Bulger should serve a minimum of 15 years, almost double the tariff set by the trial judge. The High Court ruled that this intervention was illegal.

Prison works

Mr Howard's most famous saying is that "prison works". He contributed to a culture in which more offenders were sent to prison for longer periods. But what may count most in the public mind is that he was the first Home Secretary for a generation to preside over a fall in crime. Tony Blair is fond of taunting the Tories with the fact that crime doubled while they were in power, but strictly that is true only of the period from 1980 to 1995. It then fell during Mr Howard's watch.

Immigration and race

The prospective new Tory leader also gained notoriety for a series of initiatives to curb immigration. His Labour shadow Jack Straw believed he played the "race card" for political gain - yet succeeding Home Secretaries have left most of the legislation he introduced in place, and been just as keen to keep numbers down. Critics of his asylum policies - not least Jewish liberals - threw his own family background at him, because his father, Bernat Hecht, was able to flee Romania in the late 1930s during a temporary relaxation of British immigration laws, which saved his life.

While at Cambridge University Mr Howard clashed with his lifelong rival, Ken Clarke, who had invited the fascist leader, Sir Oswald Mosley, to address the student Conservative Club. Mr Howard resigned in protest and turned up at meetings of the Labour Club. The university newspaper tipped him in 1963 as a future Labour MP.

Tax

After the 1987 election Margaret Thatcher decided she needed a tough new Local Government minister to introduce the poll tax. Mr Howard did the job with great determination, launching his front-bench career. But as shadow Chancellor, under Iain Duncan Smith, he reined in those on the right who wanted to make wild promises of tax cuts, arguing that voters are now more interested in better public services.

Gays

Mr Howard also introduced the notorious Clause 28, which banned councils from using public money to "promote" homosexuality, and last year he opposed moves to change Tory policy on this. In 1994, he voted against lowering the age of consent for gays to 16.

Minimum wage

When Mr Howard was Secretary of State for Employment, from 1990 to 1992, his Labour shadow was Tony Blair, who learnt to respect his debating skills. Mr Howard led the campaign against a national minimum wage, claiming that it would cost up to two million jobs - which may have been misleading but it was effective politics.

Hanging

In other respects, though, he has avoided playing to right-wing opinion. He used to be in favour of hanging when he first entered parliament, in 1983, but changed his mind in the mid-1980s and repeatedly voted against the death penalty. He also endured a barracking at one Conservative Party conference for refusing to introduce compulsory identity cards, an idea now being actively considered by Tony Blair.

The environment

But for Mr Howard's skills as a lawyer there might never have been an international treaty on climate change. He found the words the US government could accept and played a large role in the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. It seems he had been moved by the experience of visiting the Amazon rainforest.

Europe

At heart Mr Howard is probably one of those who would never agree to subsuming sterling into the European single currency. It is possible that he was one of the "bastards" John Major had in mind 10 years ago, when the then prime minister complained in a private conversation about the behaviour of three unnamed members of his Cabinet. Mr Howard said later that he would have resigned rather than accept British membership of the euro.

But as shadow Foreign Secretary under William Hague, he refused to go along with those on the Tory right, including Conrad Black, the proprietor of The Daily Telegraph, who advocated that the UK join the US, Canada and Mexico in North America's free trade zone, warning that it would jeopardise Britain's membership of the EU.

Principles

As a student politician, young Mr Howard is reported to have slapped Ken Clarke on the back and told him, "Politics is easy when you've got principles." Principles or not, he has always shown an icy determination to succeed. When he was elected to the Commons in 1983, the road to success was with the Thatcherite right. Since then, the party has moved so far to the right that Howard is almost in its centre, and his mission will be to pull it back a little to the left. Even if he fails to become Downing Street's first practising Jew, he could be the man who led the Conservative Party back to electability.

'He has gravitas, and can tempt me back'

The Conservatives' decline has left many instinctively Tory people without a party to support. Can Michael Howard win them back? Andrew Johnson and Annabel Fallon talk to some of those he must woo

The gay Tory

Ivan Massow, businessman and former party member

I left the party in 2000 because of intolerance, but it has improved massively since I left. Iain Duncan Smith has done really good groundwork, quietly. There are more gay candidates and more women candidates. True Conservatives now are much more libertarian. The party has put the offensive moral judgements, all that family values stuff, firmly behind them. Many Asians, for example, are natural Conservatives; they are entrepreneurs and work hard, but they have all moved to Labour because the Tories were "nasty" and "scary" people. But now the party has a good leader with gravitas who can take everybody with him. I think Michael Howard is the sort of person who could tempt someone like me back to the party.

The wealthy libertarian

Nick Bancroft, fund manager, lives in Holland Park and Buckinghamshire

Broadly speaking, the Tories do, I suppose, represent my world and my principles. I suppose I want to live in a world where we don't have too much government. I would like to see less state control and more freedom to make decisions. I will continue to support the Conservatives although that's not to say I like everything they do. For instance I don't believe they have been very libertarian with their stance on drugs. Just by simply banning them they have created an enormous wave of crime and the solution has been worse than the problem. They do in general have the right policies - they let people do what they want to do without too much taxation and regulation. They are in a much better place now that Iain Duncan Smith has gone.

The self-made woman

Debbie Draycott, 56, owns motorcycle leasing company. Lives in Wiltshire

When I got my first job at 18 there was a Labour government in power; it was tax, tax, tax. The Conservatives tend to look after small businesses like ours. This is really important to me - the Conservatives believe in free enterprise and not a centralised nanny state. I also believe they are always much stronger on law and order; their support is for the victims not the criminals and I, for one, would like to see their stance get even stronger. The Conservatives instead say this is what we believe in - take it or leave it.

The young metropolitan

Toby Orr, public affairs consultant in Pall Mall

I can't pretend I don't fit the stereotypical Tory voting bill, but my reasons for voting go beyond the circumstances of my upbringing. I guess it is because they have firmly rooted principles. Would I vote for them now? Yes, more than ever. The Labour Government has degraded the system with spin. They are playing dangerous games with the economy. And without a written constitution, this Government has taken every attempt to subvert parliamentary accountability - especially with regards to Europe. Blair gave the people of Hartlepool a referendum on who they would like as mayor, but we have no referendum on Europe. It's ridiculous.

The black businesswoman

Joy Nichols, founder of Nichols Employment Agency, member of Black Londoners Forum

To win my vote they would have to demonstrate they were doing all they could to shake out racism from their party. The Conservative Party does not represent me in terms of my business life or my personal life. They would win my vote if they started to pay as much attention to Afro-Caribbean businesses as they pay to Asian businesses. I normally vote Labour, like most black people. But we're waking up to the fact that we should not automatically do things. We should question what we do and why.

Basildon man

Ray Grindy, taxi driver

I just think they are the better option. They try to be hard on law and order, which is where most people's minds are. Iain Duncan Smith is a very nice man but wasn't up to the job. But I don't think Michael Howard is either. I'd like to see Margaret Thatcher in the job. No one has really been able to follow her. I think Tony Blair is a dangerous man. If he had the chance to be president of Europe he would take it and sell the country down the river. I'd like to see a stronger Tory party. I will always vote Conservative, though.

The landowner

George Lopez, owner of 1000-acre estate in Devon

With the Conservatives one has a greater chance of retaining the rural traditions of England; traditions which matter hugely to the people of the countryside - the workers as well as the landowners. The workers have cared for the land for generations, and it's they that don't support Blair. They look to us to represent their views. With the Conservatives one has a much better chance of handing private estates and land to the next generation, something that's very important to me.

The Women's Institute member

June Satterthwaite, president of Chipping Campden WI

I wouldn't have chosen Michael Howard, but thank goodness they are showing some unity. In my younger days, I was a Conservative because my parents were, but then I started thinking for myself and it just happens to be the way I feel. They lost the plot for a long time but I think, suddenly, they seem to have woken up. I'm a Kenneth Clarke fan, but I'm glad he made his announcement that he isn't going to stand. What we need to do is support just one person. Michael Howard will have to come up with the goods. If he doesn't he will be out on his ear.

The intellectual

Roger Scruton, writer and philosopher

I hope Mr Howard will take things backwards rather than forwards - to the traditions that define us, the things we are sure of and the outlook of the world that puts us at peace with our neighbours. All this modernising outlook is not only not Conservative but doesn't appeal to voters. All natural people are Conservatives. All people, when they are honest with themselves, realise that human nature is imperfect. It needs discipline or else it will run riot and free to its own advantage, to the disadvantage of the needs of other people.

The young Tory

Ben Archibald, student, member of Conservative Future

I first developed political thoughts at grammar school in Belfast. Toryism seemed a bit more sophisticated than the Unionist parties. We're taking the idea of putting out policy much more seriously now. Michael Howard is a unifying choice, and that can only be good. He's about five times nicer than his public image suggests. I don't give a rat's arse about what people suggest is the public image of the party. We're not the nasty party and I'm not a nasty person.

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