Being good in Parliament won't make Michael Howard popular with the public

The combative qualities that enable him to thrive in the Commons will not be assets but handicaps when it comes to the election
Click to follow

Like a true medieval drama, the leadership saga in the Tory party looks set to proceed from the assassination this week to the coronation next week. But the enthronement of Michael Howard is more a statement of the weakness of the Conservative Party than a demonstration of the strengths of his claim to leadership.

Let us start with what it tells us about the weakness of the Tory party. The primary motivation among Tory MPs for the conspiracy to install Michael Howard by acclamation is that they are desperate not to leave the choice to the wider party membership who last time foisted on them the embarrassment of Iain Duncan Smith. The average age of Tory party members is well into the sixties and they still view every issue through the prejudices which Margaret Thatcher encouraged them to mistake for principles. Any leader chosen by them will, by definition, be out of touch with modern Britain.

The conspiracy to deny the wider membership any choice is only possible because of another sign of Tory weakness. The truth is few people want the job, or to be precise few want the job right now.

It is now a consensus among Tory MPs that they will lose the next general election. The summary dispatch of the last leader was not to pave the way for victory, but to prevent an even bigger defeat than last time. All sane candidates for the vacancy have sensibly decided that there is little attraction in volunteering to be the general who leads the party to its third defeat in a row. We are left with a classic variant of Catch-22. The political skills of any candidate are made immediately suspect by the very fact that he or she thinks it sensible to become leader in these circumstances.

Which brings us to Michael Howard. I am much entertained by his colleagues' fresh tributes to his long experience as a strength which he will bring to the leadership. For "long experience" we could substitute "known form", and believe me Labour will do just that. Even as you read this newspaper, the son of Excalibur computer at Labour HQ will be whirring out the many lows of his career - from his vigorous promotion of the poll tax to his evasiveness over the dismissal of prison chiefs. Michael Howard brings to the Conservative Party the unique liability of not only reminding the public that these people were once in Government, but the memory of how desperate the nation became to get rid of them. At least IDS had the double merit of never having served in any Tory Government and having provided staunch opposition to the last one.

His campaign to undermine the Major Government was waged over Europe where IDS led the guerrilla war against the Maastricht Treaty for daring to propose a single currency. In that respect, Michael Howard does not represent change, but continuity. He will buttress rather than challenge the hostility of the Conservatives to Britain's nearest neighbours, although there is no realistic prospect of their party becoming fit for government until it once again can do business in Europe.

He would also have made the same strategic blunder as IDS in demanding that Blair back Bush's war in Iraq, and thereby left himself with no credibility in criticising Labour over what has turned out to be their most unpopular decision.

True, Michael Howard may make a better fist of obligatory performances at Question Time, but MPs attach far too much importance to these gladiatorial bouts. William Hague was probably the most effective Opposition leader I have seen at the dispatch box, but that did not save him and his party from bombing at the subsequent general election. The public may be entertained by the theatre of PMQs, but unlike MPs they do not mistake it for real life.

Prime Minister's Questions have become more vituperative in my time in the Commons. Jim Callaghan adopted a role, which came naturally to him, of responding to questions with an avuncular air of authority and patience. While Edward Heath was Leader of the Opposition, he would not rise to put a question unless there was a serious issue of moment worth his intervention.

Our present expectation of Prime Minister's Questions as a boxing match between the two party leaders dates from the years of Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock, when not only was there a wide ideological divide between the two front benches, but also a bitter personal animus between the two protagonists. When Neil became leader, it was put to him that he should revert to the previous practice of not intervening on every occasion, but already there was an anxiety that a judicious silence from the Leader of the Opposition would be represented as a lack of anything to say.

Parliament is not any stronger or more popular from the more partisan spirit of PMQs. On the contrary, it runs the risk of driving Parliament and public further apart. The country beyond the Westminster village has become, over the same decades, much less tribal in its loyalties. Voter identification with a specific party is weak and getting weaker. Yet when they switch on their television sets, they are too often served up an example of party-political mud wrestling in which MPs behave with as much partisanship as if they were at a football match.

Enoch Powell once caught the character of the Commons well when he described it as the forum of a continuous general election, but in an era when the public is seriously bored by the party politicking of an election campaign, that may not provide the best basis on which to capture its respect.

The combative qualities that enable Michael Howard to thrive in the partisan environment of the Commons will not be assets but handicaps when the time comes for the competition for the nation's votes.

By contrast, Tony Blair is such a formidable politician precisely because he is the least tribal party leader in modern times. His popular appeal to the uncommitted, centrist voter was based on his appearance as one of them rather than another party ideologue.

It is curious that the Tory party, who remain mesmerised by Blair's electoral skills, have never grasped this key to his success. Instead, they appear poised to replace one right-wing, partisan leader with another right-wing, partisan leader. This is bunker politics - a strategy to consolidate the support of those who are already in the bunker, but with no effort to reach out to the great mass of voters outside.

In fairness, I should, as we say in the House, declare an interest. My circuitry is programmed to believe the worst of the Tory party. But sometimes those who are not immersed in finding the solution can more clearly identify the problem. The dilemma of the Conservative Party is that it needs to veer to the centre if it is to survive, but is doomed by its membership and culture to continue on the rightward trajectory on which Mrs Thatcher launched it.

It is not Michael Howard who may prove to be the real beneficiary of this week's events, but Charles Kennedy, whose party is now even better placed to pick up votes from one nation Conservatives.