Mr Howard may unsettle Mr Blair, but can he unseat him?

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The Independent Online

There is a general assumption at Westminster about how politics will develop in the next few years. Under Mr Michael Howard's regime, the Conservatives will slowly recover. At any rate, people will no longer fall off their barstools at any mention of their name. No more will we read stories about persons of whom we had never heard being appointed to or, more usually, removed from jobs in Central Office which we did not even know existed. The Conservatives will be competent - or competent enough to come in out of the rain. They may not be loved under Mr Howard. But then, were they ever loved under Margaret Thatcher?

Despite the validity of this parallel, as far as it goes, it will not be enough, not nearly enough. Mr Howard has a huge majority to crack. The most he can hope for is to make the Tories respectable once again as a political force. By the time of the next election, he will be 64 - middle-aged by the standards of the past, positively ancient by those of today, which have seen Mr Tony Blair exclude perfectly decent politicians from his government on the sole ground, as far as one can see, that they are on the wrong side of 60. Accordingly, at some time during the third Blair administration, Mr Howard will hand over the Conservative Party to someone we have not thought of at the moment and take a well-earned peerage.

This prognosis is, as I say, that of the most skilled and most sensible political physicians. But it is not necessarily right on that account. In 1945-50, C R Attlee lost 78 seats; in 1959-64, Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home lost 61; in 1966-70, Harold Wilson lost 76. In 1992-97, the pattern changed: John Major lost 171, and ended up with 165 members, one fewer than the present total.

Mr Major's government did many foolish and a few wicked things, such as privatising the railways. It was no more corrupt than the present administration. Inasmuch as there is any justice in politics, it did not "deserve" the fate visited upon it by the electorate in May 1997. But you cannot argue with the ballot box. With the electoral system, you can. On this occasion, however, the Liberal Democrats went up from 20 to 46 seats, winning six more in 2001.

Whatever the polls say - though 38 per cent for Labour impresses some people more than it does me - my feeling is that the level of hostility towards the Government in the country is comparable to the hostility towards the Conservative government in the early 1990s. It takes a different form, however. While Mr Major was regarded as weak, indecisive, ineffectual, Mr Blair is seen more as untrustworthy, with a ready and not usually convincing answer for everything. True, the Conservatives had Norman Lamont as their Chancellor, whereas Labour has Gordon Brown. But Lord Lamont was succeeded by Mr Kenneth Clarke, whose regime was a model of its kind, as these things go. Much good did that do his party at the election!

Mr Brown may not be so lucky as Mr Clarke. The row about whether he should or should not be on the Labour National Executive Committee for the pre-election period is peripheral. Most people do not know what the National Executive Committee is; or, if they do, they see no reason why its composition should be any concern of theirs. What was interesting was that he chose to take to the airwaves to give his side of the dispute, appearing throughout to be in the highest good humour. The old, pre-paternal Brown would not have done that. He would have scowled into his computer screen instead and taken his revenge on Mr Blair in some other way. Indeed, Mr Brown seems - for perfectly understandable reasons - to be turning fatherhood into a full-time occupation.

What is not peripheral is whether Mr Brown has to raise direct taxes before the election. All the signs are that he will have to. Nor is the rise in mortgage rates at all helpful to the Government. No use claiming that this has been brought about by a committee of workers, peasants and intellectuals in the darkest recesses of the Bank of England. Most people know as little of the Monetary Policy Committee as they do of the National Executive Committee. Mr Brown and Mr Blair will get all the blame.

To be deprived of its absolute majority, Labour has to lose 82 seats. This is slightly more than the average loss after a previous landslide in the 1945-70 period, but many fewer than the Conservative loss in 1997. I write of Labour losses rather than of Conservative gains. For it is unlikely that they will all be made by the Conservatives. Admittedly, about three-quarters of the seats - including Mr Howard's at Folkestone - on which the Liberal Democrats have aligned their telescopes are held by the Tories. But this should not blind us to the broad change that has been happening for the last decade or so.

The Conservatives who ran the party in the past are now turning to the Liberal Democrats. The war in Iraq provides a recent illustration of this phenomenon. I could never understand, by the way, why the lobby correspondents virtually unanimously described Mr Clarke's opposition to that war as a "blunder" - that was the approved word - for all the world as if he had stepped into a cowpat while he was looking up at the heavens. He clearly would not have adopted the position he did if he had not thought about it very carefully beforehand. The retired majors and their ladies tended to support Mr Clarke.

The official Conservative position, which, as far as I can see, Mr Howard has adopted, will make it very difficult for him to mount an effective attack on Mr Blair when Lord Hutton's report is published in January. This is some months later than the date originally promised. Some of us are used to producing commissioned work on time. No matter. Whatever Mr Howard's forensic skills may be - a word which I suggest should now be given a long rest, at any rate in relation to the leader of the Conservative party - he will find it hard to assault Mr Blair when he approved the enterprise on which Mr Blair was engaged.

Not so Mr Kennedy, though his party adopted the curious position that a wrong action was no longer wrong - at least, not to be denounced - once it had been embarked on. The pattern of politics is changing: so that with the election, we may have Mr Blair without his majority, and the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats contending for the position of second party, which would not be such good news for Mr Howard.