Bruce Anderson: A dark horse for the job is a man who has already done it

In those days William Hague was too young but experience has matured him
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The Independent Online

Michael Howard displayed an unfamiliar aspect of his personality yesterday. Though it was one which did not surprise his close friends, it would have seemed unusual to those who only know him from television. When he announced he would resign from the Conservative leadership, Michael Howard was acting out of humility.

Michael Howard displayed an unfamiliar aspect of his personality yesterday. Though it was one which did not surprise his close friends, it would have seemed unusual to those who only know him from television. When he announced he would resign from the Conservative leadership, Michael Howard was acting out of humility.

In 1997, when he made his first bid to become Tory leader, his ambitions were very different from those of his rivals. They were all hoping to become Prime Minister at the next election. Mr Howard knew that was impossible. He understood that the scale of Tony Blair's success in 1997 virtually guaranteed him a second election victory.

So he was prepared to be the Tory party's Moses. He would lead the trek through the wilderness, undertaking the necessary reforms and the policy review, to prepare the party for the long march back to power.

With that in mind, he tried to recruit William Hague as his deputy and eventual successor.

Mr Hague initially accepted Mr Howard's offer. Then he had second thoughts. He decided history was beckoning him. He obeyed it. He discovered, like many before him, that when history is still in flux, opportunities can rapidly turn into delusions.

So Mr Howard's attempted self-sacrifice was spurned. But, six years later, he had a second chance. This time, he did not need to exert himself. As Iain Duncan Smith's leadership disintegrated, the Tory party realised there was only one candidate for the leadership. The campaign turned into a coronation.

Mr Howard always knew he had a hard task. But he never gave up hope of winning. Even so, in a subtle manner, some of his senior colleagues held discussions with him about the implications of a defeat.

They thought they had come to an understanding. Even if the Tories went down to a heavy defeat, Mr Howard would serve on for at least a year.

Fighting an election when doomed to defeat is ghastly. Day after day, the failing leader exerts every shred of effort. Day after day, the voters' indifference is recorded in polls. Mr Howard exerted himself to the uttermost, and the Conservative share of the vote hardly increased.

It is easy to see why he concluded that he should make an honourable exit. But it was the wrong conclusion, for one basic reason. There was no obvious successor.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, back at Westminster after eight years, is an outstanding speaker, and will be a great asset to the Tory party in Parliament. He did not go to the trouble of returning to Westminster in his late 50s to efface himself on the back benches.

But before he could become a strong candidate, he would need to re-establish his political identity, especially with the Tory MPs who were not even in Parliament while he was serving as a cabinet minister.

David Davis has a clear political identity. He has positioned himself as the candidate of the tough-minded right. But a large number of his fellow MPs remain to be persuaded his aptitudes are equal to his ambitions.

There are also some bright youngsters. David Cameron, still only 38, has had a good election campaign and is an effective media performer. But some might hesitate before electing another ultra-young leader. Liam Fox is good on the media but has he demonstrated he has enough depth to lead?

George Osborne is another outstandingly able man but, as he is only 33, this is surely a leadership election too early for him.

One further youthful Tory is being widely mentioned. He is only 44, yet he has considerable political experience. He served as a cabinet minister under John Major and succeeded him as leader of the party.

In those days, William Hague was too young. But experience has matured him. In the past eight years, he has also given the impression that he has grown into his haircut, which seems more appropriate to a man in his 40s than one in his 30s.

If Mr Hague were to run, he would have many supporters. But since he walked away from the Tory leadership, he has shown no nostalgia for high office.

It is likely that there will be strong efforts to hold Mr Hague in readiness. There will also be an attempt to convince Mr Howard of the need to give his party as long as possible before a decision. For the fourth time in eight years, the party is condemned to the strain of a leadership contest under the shadow of electoral defeat.

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