Mr Howard's novel weapon: telling the truth

Honesty has the virtue of being one of the few things an opposition can deliver as it waits for the general election
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For Britain's constitutional arrangements to work well, the swing door, which leads into government and out again, must operate. It is in this perspective that I have been scrutinising Michael Howard's speeches since he announced that he was a candidate for the leadership of the Conservative party. Ideally, party A remains in office for two terms at the most, and then is defeated at the polls by party B, which likewise lasts less than 10 years in power and is in its turn replaced - perhaps by party C - but at least replaced. This was the pattern from 1850 until 1914, from 1918 to 1939 and from 1945 to 1979. But since then the swing door has got stuck for long periods. The Conservatives held office from 1979 until 1997 and New Labour looks destined to rule from 1997 until 2009, if not longer.

I say "constitutional arrangements" because almost alone among nations we have no written constitution. As a result we have a problem in knowing how to limit creeping authoritarianism. This danger became evident towards the end of Baroness Thatcher's reign; it has become apparent again.

We have just one antidote to this poison. It is the regular replacement of one government by the main opposition party of the day. On constitutional grounds alone, therefore, I want Labour to lose the next election and go back into opposition for a period. I frankly don't mind whether a revived Conservative Party forms the next government or the surging Lib Dems. For me the key consideration is the operation of the swing door.

Interestingly, Mr Howard has outlined a novel approach to opposition. He has said: "We won't hesitate to give credit to the Government when it gets things right. We won't oppose for opposition's sake."

Actually there is a perfectly respectable case for opposing for opposition's sake: it ensures that every proposal for new legislation is thoroughly tested. If only the Tories had more thoroughly probed the case for invading Iraq.

Until now, the sole exponent of the alternative way has been Mr Howard's colleague on the opposition front bench, Oliver Letwin. Mr Letwin has occasionally agreed publicly with the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, whom he shadows - and has thereby rather embarrassed Mr Blunkett with his own party.

Then in a passage in the same speech which beggars belief, Mr Howard went on to say: "We will never place our electoral self-interest before the good of the country. No narrow partisan opportunism for us. I will always tell the truth. I will say it as I see it."

There are two extraordinary propositions in this brief section. The first is the renunciation of self-interest. Actually, this makes me feel uneasy. The pursuit of self interest in any activity is, at least, straightforward. In such a world - an Adam Smith world one might call it - one knows where one is; one knows what to expect.

Who understands what is the "good of the country" at any particular moment? I was once telephoned by the attorney general of the day and asked "for the good of the country" to soften The Independent's criticisms of Saudi Arabia. I couldn't see it; that we were doing our duty as a newspaper was the main thing.

Mr Howard's second extraordinary proposition is the promise to tell the truth. If only! How unusual. Who could disagree?

Mr Howard even referred to the main reason why one is entitled to place little reliance on this promise. "Most of you know that I'm a lawyer," he said. What a fatal admission. For in their professional activities, lawyers are as incapable of telling the truth frankly and honestly as they are of telling a straight lie. For they don't expect to tell the truth as such.

Instead, they make a case. They find a form of words. And in so doing, more often than not, they hide the truth. Mr Howard renounces this too. "I won't argue a lawyer's case," he went on. "If something is true but tough, I won't shrink from saying it." He will be rigorously honest.

I wonder if Mr Howard understands how hard this will be. It would have to apply to his front- bench team, too. Mr Letwin would not find it a problem but some of the others would. It means dispensing with spin doctors. For the techniques of public relations are closely akin to lawyers' wiles.

"Presentation" isn't a lie, but then nor is it the whole truth. Would Mr Howard stop insisting, for instance, that his policies as home secretary caused a reduction in crime?

Rigorously telling the truth would also require admitting that one doesn't know the answer to a question. Ignorance can look culpable. Is Mr Howard really prepared for all of this?

The electoral reward, however, could be substantial. Honesty has the virtue of being one of the few things an opposition can deliver as it waits for the the general election. It is not something one promises; it is something one does. By the time polling day arrives, electors would know whether for the first time in their lives that they were being asked to vote for a truly honest political party.

The sheer novelty would be incredibly attractive. As a result, the swing door might even operate earlier than expected. Go on, Mr Howard, you've said it; now do it.