He's a Welshman and not for turning

The Historical View

It has been quite like old times among the Tories, with what Iain Macleod called the magic circle choosing the leader, and no further argument. In really old times this would not have been Mr Michael Howard but almost certainly Mr Michael Ancram, as Lord Ancram, the heir of the 12th Marquess of Lothian, now likes to call himself. If he were a real democrat he would call himself Michael Kerr, that being the family name. Whatever his correct name may be, he withdrew from the contest, as did several others whom it would be tedious to list. Mr Kenneth Clarke, the only one who would cause real alarm in No 10, has withdrawn too.

Mr David Davis must undoubtedly be mentioned, if for no other reason than that I misled readers about his intentions. I thought he would stand, as did most other observers, and that in the country, though perhaps not in the parliamentary party, he would probably win. Mr Davis indicated as much himself in his statement on Wednesday evening, thereby emphasising the nobility of his action.

If I was wrong about Mr Davis, I have been right about the instability of the Conservative electoral system, which has now been jettisoned by force majeure dressed up as a general will to keep the ship afloat.

In 2001 the MPs, to most people's surprise, wanted Mr Clarke but had to put up with Mr Iain Duncan Smith instead. In 1997, however, they had wanted Mr William Hague, with Mr Clarke second choice. In this contest the franchise was still confined to the Commons, as it had been since 1965, when the Tories went democratic. Paradoxically, the evidence is that in 1997 the activists wanted Mr Clarke, despite his European views.

The new but now, it appears, defunct voting system (introduced under Mr Hague but devised, I am told, by Mr Chris Patten) goes out of its way to invite a conflict between Westminster and the country. Not only can the activists override the parliamentarians, as they did with Mr Duncan Smith. The parliamentarians can then, in turn, humiliate the activists, as they duly proceeded to do with Mr Duncan Smith last week. It does not seem a very sensible system.

But then, the Labour system is not much more sensible either, in this respect. In the post-1981 electoral college, it was a matter of happy chance that the parliamentary party preferred Neil Kinnock and, later, John Smith over their rivals. In the new, revised electoral college, Tony Blair was likewise the universal favourite in 1994. But in the contest for the deputy leadership in 1981, agreement very nearly broke down when Denis Healey defeated Tony Benn by a fraction of a decimal point.

There are no such worries for Mr Howard, though there may be for his successor, unless the system is changed yet again. In just under a year's time the audience at the conference will rise up and applaud vigorously. They always do. They are always in favour of the incumbent, irrespective of whether or not they have chosen him, as they were for Edward Heath when he was challenged by Margaret Thatcher. When the challenger becomes the incumbent, they are equally enthusiastic on his behalf.

Mr Jeremy Paxman, on Wednesday's Newsnight, asked a somewhat startled Mr Stephen Dorrell how the Conservative Party would take to having someone of "Transylvanian extraction" as its leader. It is anybody's guess quite what Mr Dorrell was doing popping up everywhere last week, when for the past few years he has been practically invisible. I suspect it was to help establish Mr Howard's liberal credentials. At all events, I was as surprised as Mr Dorrell evidently was by Mr Paxman's question.

Mr Howard's parents were Jews from Romania who emigrated to this country before the Second World War. They settled as dress-shop proprietors at Llanelli in Carmarthenshire. It may be that Mr Paxman was, in mentioning Transylvania, seeking to make a connection with Dracula and werewolves and, accordingly, with Miss Ann Widdecombe's claim that Mr Howard had about him "something of the night". Or it may be that he was using "Transylvanian" as a synonym for "Jewish", much as others today talk about a "north-London background". Either way, it was odd.

Mr Howard's background is in South-west Wales. The MP for Llanelli, Mr Denzil Davies, once told me that he always desisted from attacking him because his mother Hilda was much respected in the district and had, indeed, been a pillar of the local Labour Party. It would have perhaps been more pertinent of Mr Paxman to ask how the Conservatives would respond to having their first Welsh leader, for Mr Howard is as Welsh as I am.

Geoffrey Howe and Michael Heseltine might either of them have reached the same position if things had gone differently. Mr Howard is the first to come from Wales. Oddly, Labour has had only one Welsh leader (Neil Kinnock), whereas the Liberals and their successors have produced three (David Lloyd George, Clement Davies and Roy Jenkins).

Personally, I have always found Mr Howard straightforward and generous. For instance, 12 years ago I was writing a book on the fall of Mrs Thatcher. I interviewed him, along with numerous other Conservatives. Our conversation turned to the so-called Cambridge mafia and the role, if any, which they had played in the stirring events of November 1990, a true cataclysm, as distinct from the somehow comic events of last week. Mr Howard mentioned that he had a framed photograph of the officers and committee of the Cambridge Union in 1962. Would I like to borrow it to put in the book? I said I would. It shows, among others, Kenneth Clarke, John Gummer and Michael Howard in dinner jackets and their hot youth, with Norman St John-Stevas, similarly attired, also there to add a touch of maturity.

And what, you may ask, of Mr Howard's policies? We all thought he was a monster as Home Secretary. But that was before Mr Jack Straw had crawled out of the deep. He was followed by another terrifying creature in Mr David Blunkett. Mr Howard and Mr Blunkett were both frequently overruled by the courts. Mr Howard gritted his teeth and pressed on. Mr Blunkett utters murmuring threats against the judiciary: threats which may be given substance by the Government's extensive legal reforms. Altogether the odd thing is that, while Mr Michael ("SAS") Portillo is accepted as a born-again liberal, no one believes that Mr Howard can ever change.

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