The Cabinet Reshuffle: Mercurial barrister who must face the law and order question: Michael Howard: A man of ambition without charisma - or much ideology

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MICHAEL HOWARD's reputation as a winner may be put to its most stringent test as Home Secretary.

He started much later in Parliament than his 'Cambridge mafia' chums Kenneth Clarke and Norman Lamont, and the rise of the sharp, former planning barrister has been mercurial.

His late entry to Parliament at 42 was reportedly due to his determination to safeguard his marriage in 1975 to Sandra Paul, a Fifties model who had already had three husbands. His swift progress after that meant he caught up with contemporaries. A wide following of friends has, however, eluded him.

From a South Wales/Jewish shop- keeper background, but lacking the populist touch, he is viewed as a man of ambition without charisma - or much ideology. 'A total cold fish' without much support in the party, was how one minister put it.

The first question the law and order wing will want him to answer will be about his commitment to the police changes set in train by his predecessor Mr Clarke. The party's right wing is perplexed by his reported obstruction to the changes within Cabinet, and might turn hostile if he backs away.

If he feels he must now change tack, Mr Howard ought to prove equal to the task. He had no difficulty in transforming himself from centrist Bow Group adherent to a distinct voice of the Tory right, from being pro-Europe in the 1970s to more sceptical nowadays. When the time came he quietly transferred to John Major his one-time allegiance to Margaret Thatcher. Once in favour of the death penalty, he has since voted against hanging.

As an avowed and ruthless bogyman of the trade unions, bashing the Prison Officers' Association with prison privatisation should come easily, as might fundamental examination of Home Office spending, as part of the root and branch review of expenditure in four departments ordered by Michael Portillo, Chief Secretary to the Treasury. As a former planning QC he will be adept at running rings round his officials.

Mending the broken fences Mr Clarke left in his wake will prove tricky. The rapturous reception given to Tony Blair, his Labour shadow, at the Police Federation conference shows how carefully he may have to tread.

Mr Howard was once fined pounds 10 for travelling on a train without a ticket, but the greater failing of the new Home Secretary is probably his lack of warmth and clubbability.

His predecessor's knack of upsetting vested interests is probably not matched by Mr Howard's skill at smoothing ruffled feathers.

The MP for Folkestone and Hythe since 1983, he was a junior trade minister and local government minister before joining the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Employment in 1990. He switched to environment last year.

But with the barristerial turn of mind that likes to stick to its brief, Mr Howard was a poll tax diehard, while his public relations job on water privatisation was less than overwhelming.

(Photograph omitted)