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Ann Widdecombe: Michael must open his eyes and listen

The Inside View

If Michael Howard can transform the fortunes of the Conservative Party as dramatically as he has transformed his own, then we can start preparing for government now. Six years ago he trailed last in both the poll of MPs and in the poll of associations during the leadership contest. Two years ago, not in the Shadow Cabinet, he did not stand at all, knowing his case was hopeless. Today he looks set to be crowned, the sole candidate to lead a party which might just get its act together after years of in-fighting.

It is only six years since we came to the end of an unbroken run of 18 years in office, and even at a time of catastrophic defeat we won the agenda with Labour turning everything it stood for on its head. Yet for this impressive record we felt impelled to apologise. (I didn't.) Of course we made mistakes and it does no harm to admit them. Yet we have seemed hell bent on portraying ourselves in the worst light, to the comfort of nobody except our enemies, and in hell we landed, Tridents locked in internecine warfare.

Mr Howard's first task is to restore a sense of pride and purpose - pride in past achievements and purpose in our policies, pride in the name Conservative and purpose in winning. He should avoid any temptation to consider himself a caretaker because that implies acceptance of defeat before we have even joined battle.

I must have been to a hundred different constituencies in the last general election and the same two statements were made over and over again by people explaining not why they were not going to vote Conservative but why they were not going to vote at all. The first statement was that they didn't see any difference between the parties. In other words they had no choice. So Michael must not only give them choice but must make sure they know there are choices. In that he has an excellent legacy from Iain Duncan Smith. Any student or any parent financing a student knows there is a clear choice next time: tuition fees plus top-up fees with Labour or neither with the Conservatives. Any pensioner knows it is: struggle on with rocketing council taxes and inadequate pensions under Labour or vote for a party which will raise pensions in line with earnings. We need a few more policies offering equally stark choices.

The second statement was that nobody believes a word that politicians say any more. Blair has made an art form of spin and we have to do the exact opposite, telling even uncomfortable truths. For example, the fundamental problem with the NHS is that it is a 1940s system trying to cope with 21st-century science and its concomitant demands. The answer cannot, therefore, lie merely in a bit of extra cash and a bit of extra goodwill.

Is Howard the man to do all this? As far as policy goes, the answer is probably yes. He is a good thinker, intellectually formidable, forensic in analysis. He also has sheer bloody-minded determination. When he was Home Secretary he took the criminal justice system from left to right almost single-handedly and in the teeth of the Chancellor who had to pay for it all. It was an amazing performance.

Yet it is vital he broadens that agenda and vision now. Having disciplined prisons is all well and good but it does only half the job if they are not also purposeful and rehabilitative. Having tough sentencing is useful only if it is matched by a real effort to make communities safer and pleasanter, and to break the treadmill of crime. So I wish his declaration of candidature had been on a council estate rather than in a posh art gallery. I am quite happy to take him to the Arden Estate where I did my own non-declaration. It ain't far from Westminster after all. Certainly he should be able to restore pride and cohesion. His worst enemies could not accuse him of undermining past leaders and he will have the moral high ground in demanding loyalty. He will have to do more than demand: he will have to listen and to win over. It is vital that he surrounds himself with loyal friends who are more than capable of standing up to his juggernaut approach as well as doing what he has promised and forming a broadly based Shadow Cabinet.

The party appears to have recognised that we must never get to this point again. It was the one statement in IDS's forlorn attempt to win a reprieve that had everyone banging the desks in approval. The path back to power will not be a rose-strewn one: it will be a tough uphill climb. There is, however, no law of nature which says you cannot walk uphill and at least we may at last have left base camp.

Ann Widdecombe was a Home Office minister under John Major