But on another, and more important, level, Mr Howard has played a blinder. The Tory leader has never said who he wants to succeed him, but it is the worst-kept secret in politics that he wants it to be David Cameron, his former political adviser at the Home Office and the man he asked to write the Tory manifesto.
The inscrutable Mr Howard kept his cards very close to his chest. Even some of his closest aides had to work out his master plan for themselves. The pivotal moment was his post-election reshuffle, when he pitted George Osborne against Gordon Brown as shadow Chancellor and gave Mr Cameron, who is five years older, the less senior and less daunting job of opposing Ruth Kelly as shadow Education Secretary. "Looking back, everything Michael has done was designed to pave the way for David," says one of Mr Howard's close allies.
For a while, the plan seemed to stall. Mr Cameron did well, but did not look ready for the imminent battle. Some friends were not sure he should run. When he did, many thought he was merely putting down a marker for the future.
Mr Howard had seen something in Mr Cameron that many of us had not. He then provided the platform on which his protégé could shine by turning the annual conference into a beauty parade. Mr Cameron shot to prominence, while the fortunes of his main rival, David Davis, slumped.
Mr Davis is not out of it yet. His street-fighting abilities should not be underestimated. Though I believe Mr Cameron will prove strong enough to win the run-off among the party's 300,000 members, the race is now his to lose, and he may yet suffer the curse of the Tory front-runner, which Mr Davis, Kenneth Clarke, Michael Portillo and Michael Heseltine know all about.
So far, Mr Davis has been more specific on policy than Mr Cameron, who has focused on the need to change the party's image, and will now have to convince members he has substance as well as style.
I suspect he will do enough to persuade them to take a gamble on him rather than the safer but technocratic option of Mr Davis. The Tories are hungry for power again.
The prospect of a re-energised Tory party will also sharpen debate inside Labour about how to renew itself without losing power. One Blairite minister told me: "John Major was relatively unknown when he took over from Margaret Thatcher, and so he had a honeymoon period with the voters. Gordon Brown's problem is he will have been part of the establishment for 12 years. It's hard to see how he could look fresh against Cameron."
Mr Cameron may well portray himself as the true "heir to Blair" who can complete the market-driven public service reforms that have been watered down by Mr Brown. There are already signs of tension between 10 and 11 Downing Street about how to respond to the Cameron phenomenon. It has reinforced Mr Blair's instinct to hit the accelerator and drive through another round of reforms, starting next week with a White Paper on schools.
While Labour frets, the politician who can afford the biggest smile this weekend is Mr Howard. He may turn out to be a John the Baptist figure who bequeathed his party a future prime minister.
Like Neil Kinnock, Mr Howard was too associated with his party's bad old past to become Prime Minister, and could only pave the way for the next generation. On 6 December, Mr Howard's master plan should be completed, and we will find out if his protégé can succeed where he failed.Reuse content