Opportunism, folly and Mr Michael Howard

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The Independent Online

A few weeks ago I wrote here that no one I knew was going to vote Labour at the election. This brought about complaints of two sorts. One was that whatever percentage it was had proclaimed that they had every intention of voting for Mr Tony Blair. The polls said so: therefore it must be true. The implication was that I must have some very odd friends, unrepresentative to say the least. The other complaint was more interesting, because it was specific. An old friend of 45 years announced that he, at any rate, proposed to vote Labour.

I had better not mention his name. My mother considered it an impertinence to ask anyone how he or she proposed to vote: the more so to relate the intention afterwards. My friend I had marked down as one of several in the category of Labour-unto-death. He is the only one to justify the label. The others are off to the Liberal Democrats or to Respect, if there is a candidate available. But his reason for continuing to vote Labour is interesting.

He has little regard for Mr Blair but thinks Ms Barbara Roche is an excellent MP for Hornsey. She was certainly not much of a minister: not, at any rate, one to be allowed unchaperoned on to the airwaves, the sole test of ministerial ability in these debased times. But she may still be a first-class member.

No one is shifting to the Conservatives. Some of those who have always voted Tory will continue doing so, while others are moving to the Liberal Democrats, all of them on account of the war in Iraq (I do not care for the cold-war word "defecting", suggesting as it does that there is something morally reprehensible about leaving one party to support another).

Obviously this latter movement cannot be confined to my friends. As with mice: there must be more of them. The Conservative Party has always underestimated - has often seemed to refuse even to contemplate - the strength of anti-American feeling within its ranks. The popularity of Enoch Powell was testimony to this, as, to a lesser extent, was that of Alan Clark; even though, with Powell, his admiring audiences did not always have much idea of what he was talking about before breaking into applause. Indeed, I remember him once receiving a standing ovation at the conference after proposing our withdrawal from East of Suez when this was not the policy of the party's leaders or, for that matter, of its members either.

In an inchoate kind of way, Mr Michael Howard has recognised this feeling and has tried to make adjustments accordingly. The results have been disastrous. The most tangible was that Mr Karl Rove told him never to darken the doors of the White House. True, the Conservative leader replied vigorously and in kind to this sinister apparatchik, but by then the damage was done. However, it was the less tangible result which was the more serious. Mr Howard's leadership began to go awry from the moment he started to make capital out of Mr Blair's difficulties over Iraq.

There is nothing wrong with making political capital. It is, after all, what politicians are there for. But there is a time for shameless opportunism, and a time to put on a dignified face, showing more sorrow than anger. Consider the resignation of Mr David Blunkett, poor, deluded booby. It would have been enough to say that he had made mistakes and had paid the penalty rather than to embark on a general condemnation of the Government's corruption. The Government may well be like that, but this was not the time or the place to say so.

In Mr Blunkett's case there was, at least, Sir Alan Budd's report. Over Iraq, Mr Howard made the mistake of anticipating Lord Hutton's inquiry. He was not alone. Indeed, it might be said that he found himself in good company. Misled by the learned judge's polite but chilly manner and by some apparently fatal emails, our most perceptive commentators thought he would be at least as hard on the Government as he was on the BBC. Not so. The young war criminal and his associates emerged with virtue intact; while the Corporation was described in terms appropriate to a greyhound-racing syndicate at the White City.

Mr Howard was not to know this. How could he? Nevertheless he was foolish to ask beforehand a series of questions of the get-out-of-this-if-you-can variety. Such an approach never works in the House. It rarely works in the courts either, as Mr Howard should know.

He made matters worse by saying that if he had known at the time what he had now learnt, he would not have supported the war. This caused consternation, not merely because it smacked of the dreaded "opportunism" - the point which most critics took - but also because it did not altogether make sense within its own terms. For the standard Tory case for the war was not solely, or even mainly, based on the supposed weapons of mass destruction. It was based on the need to suck up to our glorious ally (as expressed by Mr William Hague and Mr Iain Duncan Smith) and to get rid of a foul tyrant (too many Tories to list conveniently). From the moment of Mr Howard's wriggle, it was never glad confident morning again.

There is no reason to suppose that, earlier, he had diverged markedly from the line taken by Mr Duncan Smith and had been constrained by his position as Shadow Chancellor. Mr Kenneth Clarke, devoid of formal responsibilities, took a different approach.

His attitude was widely described by lobby journalists at the time as a "blunder", though why it was so was not explained adequately or, indeed, at all. For the essence of a blunder is surely that someone stumbles into a course which he would not otherwise have followed. Mr Clarke was, on the contrary, clearly stating his considered opposition to the war. But then, the lobby is a strange place these days. Not only do its members write the same stories: they do so in the same words. Not long ago, it was impossible to open a paper without seeing Mr Rhodri Morgan described as a "maverick". Likewise with Mr Clarke and his blunder.

The Conservatives could have had him as leader twice: once, when the MPs preferred Mr Hague and, the second time, when the MPs wanted him but the party in the country chose that bizarre adventurer Mr Duncan Smith instead. Mr Howard has, it appears, agreed to stay on after the election instead of doing a bunk as Mr Hague and Mr John Major did. But a successor will have to be chosen at some time. I cannot see him (or her) slipping through in Mr Howard's manner. In the meantime, Mr Charles Kennedy is the only leader who can happily mention the war.