Why Norman's feeling bullish again

Michael Howard, an old friend, drops in on the former chancellor's campaign in rural Yorkshire. In such visits the Euro-sceptic battle for the Tories' future is taking shape, says Donald Macintyre
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The Independent Online
Michael Howard is getting slightly impatient. His friend of more than 30 years, Norman Lamont, can't decide what book to choose in Hammick's of Harrogate. On a whistlestop election tour of Yorkshire the Home Secretary has been lured into the bookshop where both have been promised a freebie to celebrate something called World Book Day. Lamont asks for the just published Virtual History by the right-wing author Niall Ferguson. "It's all about the what ifs - you know, like what if Norman Lamont had become Prime Minister?" Sadly, it is not in stock.

At this point, Howard, in deference to his tight schedule, strides purposefully over to a display pile of Alan Bennett's Writing Home. Lamont: "You can't possibly get that, Michael, he's a terrible old lefty." Howard: "I think it's thoroughly appropriate. It's a perfectly good Yorkshire book." Lamont: "Well, it's got lots about Harrogate, I suppose." Now, Rosemary Lamont suggests for her husband The English Patient. But wait; this is the screenplay, not the Oondatje novel. The novel is then sought and found. There then ensues a discussion about the film, which she has seen but neither Howard nor Lamont have. Mrs Lamont says: "There's a marvellous piece in The Spectator by Freddy Forsyth. Don't read it before you see the film. It absolutely takes the history apart." Howard murmurs that he isn't quite sure how all this is going to help the Tories win the general election. As the party leaves, glimpsing the lurid cover of Appassionata, Lamont says: "Actually I think I'd have preferred Jilly Cooper." Howard determinedly keeps walking out into the street.

We are privileged to be here at all. For, unusually, Lamont has imposed a "no national media" regime on his campaign. Indeed the only way you can can invade his air space is by arriving with a senior Cabinet minister. "I take the [Tony] Benn view. That you people get between us and the people. Anyway, I am fighting a campaign here. I really can't be bothered to give interviews all the time. I don't see the point. Some people don't think they're alive if they aren't appearing on television." Today, however, he is geniality itself. His campaign shows every appearance of going well. Whether because he is more instantly recognised than any other Tory backbencher, or because of the energetic work he has been putting in since he was selected for the seat last year, he is given star treatment during their stroll through the town.

Normally, the (famous) Cabinet minister approaches an innocent member of the public and introduces him to the (little known) parliamentary candidate. Here, however, Lamont does the introducing. He is particularly popular at the cab rank. As he modestly points out, it is a pounds 15 fare to Thorp Arch, just outside the constituency where his wife comes from, and where they are both living, and he is one of their best customers. One driver even proudly displays a piece of paper with Lamont's autograph on it, gathered on just such a journey. When we meet a young man who is far from sure about voting Conservative, Howard asks him what he does. He names the local restaurant where he works as a waiter. "Oh yes," says the former Chancellor thoughtfully, "they do excellent fettucine there."

Nevertheless Lamont is campaigning hard. His unusual poster is his own design: the Dayglo shocking pink in which his name is picked out ran during printing into the blue background, giving it the fetching purple look Peter Mandelson has now favoured for Labour. And so is his leaflet, a lot of it devoted to the candidate's stand against cuts imposed by the Liberal Democrat council. Never mind that as Chancellor he severely reduced the proportion of local authority discretionary spending. This is, as the leaflet proclaims, "the man to fight for Harrogate and Knaresborough". He is especially proud of his campaign to save the Bilton library from closure. Above all, the liberated Lamont grandly ignores the policy of the government of which he was a member until 1993 by expressing "total" opposition to a "single European currency which will lead to a European state". He brushes aside the question about the repeated rumours that in the event of a Tory defeat he will stand for the leadership on a straight platform of EU withdrawal. But while there aren't many things that Lamont agrees with John Major about, the centrality of Europe to the campaign is one of them. He is utterly adamant - and this time utterly serious - in saying after weeks of personal door-to-door canvassing, that "Europe is the No 1 issue of this election".

This makes Michael Howard a highly appropriate visitor to Harrogate. And not just because he and Lamont have known and liked each other since they were contemporaries in the Cambridge Union. Howard has been prominent among those who argued, in the end successfully, that Europe needed to be elevated in the Tory campaign. He could not be more scrupulous, given his total opposition to the single currency, in defending the policy of "negotiate and decide" on EMU. He refuses, more rigorously than the Prime Minister himself, to discuss the prospect of defeat, and the consequences, which must be much on his mind, for his own career. Among the 60-odd candidates he will have visited by the end of the campaign, many, like Lamont, have used the freedom given them by Central Office to flout government policy and declare their outright opposition to the single currency. This will not do him any harm if and when it comes to the leadership contest he resolutely refuses to discuss. But neither his views, nor, to be honest, the rich populist seam into which he taps are in doubt.

Howard is a pro-active campaigner. He bounds up to shoppers and has no compunction in asking them both how they intend to vote and how they voted last time before telling them that "unemployment's coming down, crime's coming down. We're on the right track. Stick with us." He loses no time in memorising for later use the figures given him by Supt Frank Farmer at Leeds's once beleaguered Chapeltown police station. Supt Farmer says frankly that he doesn't think the ending of the right to silence has made much difference on his own patch, but he is utterly enthusiastic about the advent of CCTV in his area. His figures are music in Howard's ears: detection of violent crime up 19 per cent; street robberies down 20 per cent; overall crime down 12.5 per cent. Howard will repeat these figures in a series of interviews, sharply warning a slightly abrasive Yorkshire Television reporter that the broadcast will be monitored and if he leaves out an answer saying that only the Tories are promising an extra 5,000 policemen and another pounds 75m worth of CCTV over five years, there will be an official complaint. This is not to say his approach always works; in the Pudsey constituency of the Tory candidate Peter Bone, a woman eloquently told Howard as he reeled off the 33-point plan he has for speeding up the criminal justice system: "You've had a long time to do a lot of things, and now you're saying you're going to do a lot of things." But in Yeadon, where there has been a spate of shop crime, one belligerent shopkeeper said he didn't see why young offenders had to go to court at all. Why couldn't they just be banged up straight away? This was too much even for the most right-wing Home Secretary since the war. Perhaps for the first and only time in this campaign Howard was forced to defend himself against the charge of being soft on crime.

As with law and order, so with Europe. Howard rarely loses the opportunity to say, despite the growing - and for some pro-Europeans alarming - evidence to the contrary, that Labour policies will lead to a "federal Europe". It's easy, travelling with the sceptics, to see more anti-Europeanism than in fact exists. But some clear cases are even missed by Howard. Jack Hart, technical college teacher for 31 years tells Howard firmly that education has declined in the last six years and that "all the teachers I know over 40-45 are just looking forward to their retirement". They disagree and Howard moves on. Afterwards Mr Hart says he is tempted by the Liberal Democrats because he is in strongly in favour of extra taxes for education and health. But he is dismayed by their European policies and will probably vote for the Referendum Party. A woman who bumps in to Howard in the greengrocer's in Yeadon is worried about Howard's arguments on education but then also says, after he has gone, that she is worried about Europe. Worried how? "That we are losing our national identity." Suddenly you begin to see what Labour is frightened of.

This isn't to say that doubts over Europe are actually determining voting behaviour. On Wednesday, after the ICM poll, it looked as if they might be. Now that's not so clear. One of the more experienced candidates Howard met yesterday had some interesting advice to pass on about the state of the campaign. It didn't major on Europe; instead it suggested Central Office should be making more, especially among Asian voters, of Labour's plans to scrap the assisted places scheme; and of the Tories' promise to introduce an allowance for married couples looking after children or elderly relatives. The main problems he identified: in rural constituencies, farmers were upset at the import of beef which had not been exposed to as rigorous testing for BSE as its home-produced equivalent, and Labour's claims about the abolition of the basic state pension.

What Europe does do is to identify the probable battleground to come. You can't be sure, because they won't talk about it. But it's now a racing certainty that if either Portillo or Howard became leader they would envisage, at the next election, a Tory platform that demanded renegotiation of Britain's relationship with the EU, backed by the clear threat of withdrawal if she failed to get her way. Howard's Euro-sceptic record is not in doubt: and unlike Redwood he cannot take the blame for being disloyal. But last weekend's little spat about the importance of the Amsterdam summit between Clarke and Howard was a harbinger of what may come. Howard always wanted Europe at the top of the Tories' campaign agenda. Clarke, who will surely stand, always feared it would obscure the party's economic message. Portillo, Heseltine, and Hague could all be formidable rivals. There will be deep doubts about Howard's election winning potential. But Howard led the pressure on Major to rule out a single currency; he has experience of office. He has assiduously courted editors from the Daily Mail's Paul Dacre to the Sunday Telegraph's Dominic Lawson. In a party that will swing still further rightwards after Thursday, he can't be written off.