Howard offers best hope of breaking new Tory habit of failure

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Leadership contests always stimulate excitement. On this occasion, however, as the adrenaline drained away, it was rapidly replaced by gloom. Yet another Tory leadership has ended in failure. Iain Duncan Smith's successor will be the fourth man to lead the party since Margaret Thatcher, and the party seems as far away from power as ever.

Until 1997, Austen Chamberlain was the only Tory leader of the 20th century who did not become prime minister. Now, it is widely assumed that the Tory party is about to elect its third leader in a row who will never reach No 10. Foot, Kinnock, Smith: the same thing happened to the Labour Party in the 1980s and 1990s.

But then came Tony Blair and his fate-transforming charisma. No Blair equivalent has yet appeared in the Tory firmament.

That said, many Tory MPs have concluded that there is no point in hankering after the unattainable. If there is no charismatic leader to be had, the party should at least ensure it chooses a serious, respectable figure; a grown-up politician. That is the basis of Michael Howard's appeal.

Yesterday, Douglas Hurd organised an Anglo-German conference in London. Mr Howard had been due to be a principal participant but Lord Hurd of Westwell wondered whether he might withdraw to concern himself with the political excitements of the week. There was no withdrawal, nor did Mr Howard seem preoccupied. He addressed himself to the issues under discussion and won the respect of his heroes. Many of them did not share his views, especially his Euro-scepticism. But everyone agreed he was a serious figure.

Many Tory MPs share that view. Even those who do not believe the voters will ever learn to love Mr Howard do think that enough of them might come to respect him. His supporters also argue he would be good at rebuilding the party's morale. Mr Howard has considerable and justified intellectual self-confidence. He would ensure that Conservative Central Office was run efficiently, with no more crises over silly appointments and large redundancy cheques. He would also cheer up his own troops by carrying the battle to the Labour Party.

That does not reassure every Tory MP. Mr Howard's obvious ability as a negative politician does arouse unease in some Tory circles. A number of Tory MPs believe old-fashioned, adversarial political rhetoric, which Mr Howard does so well, no longer impresses the voters and merely encourages electoral disillusion. Hence the enthusiasm for the so-called dream ticket, in which Mr Howard would be reinforced by Oliver Letwin.

Mr Letwin cannot be accused of excessive reliance on old-style rhetoric. He has been known to praise his political opponents and he has the disconcerting habit of just saying what he thinks without calculating the political consequences. He is serially honest.

Yet in current circumstances, that could be a most effective political tactic; not that he does it for tactical reasons. But as voters become increasingly exasperated with Blairite spin and smarm, increasingly fed up with being talked down and, indeed, lied to, Mr Letwin's candour could seem an attractive novelty. While Mr Howard proved to be a formidable practitioner of the old politics and cheered up the Tory core vote by relentless assaults on Labour, Mr Letwin could reach out to the young and to those who have lost faith in politics. It is not a bad strategy, and it certainly plays to both men's strengths.

A number of Tory MPs would like to go further. They are not only seeking a dream ticket but a coronation. The hope is that all the other candidates might somehow be persuaded to stand aside for Mr Howard, enabling the party to elect its new leader by the end of next week. One can see why the idea is attractive; and the wholly unexpected decision of David Davis to refuse to contest the leadership makes it a serious possibility.

Mr Howard has a commanding lead among Tory MPs and, with Mr Davis's withdrawal, there is no alternative candidate who could give him a serious challenge in the country. It is a dangerous assumption for any Conservative supporter to make but it may be that the party's leadership travail will be brought to an earlier and more benign conclusion than had seemed possible.

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