The Tories have lost their momentum

Howard felt he had to live down his nocturnal image. That is all very well - but not if he fails to impale Tony Blair
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The Independent Online

A visiting foreigner asked the retired ambassador how well Michael Howard was doing. "For his first three months, I'd have said 'very well'. Now, somewhat less well." Drawn into the conversation, I concurred. Recently, there has been a loss of Tory momentum. Michael Howard is confident and effective. He always sounds prime ministerial. But there is a sense that he has reached a plateau, quite a way below an election-winning altitude.

A visiting foreigner asked the retired ambassador how well Michael Howard was doing. "For his first three months, I'd have said 'very well'. Now, somewhat less well." Drawn into the conversation, I concurred. Recently, there has been a loss of Tory momentum. Michael Howard is confident and effective. He always sounds prime ministerial. But there is a sense that he has reached a plateau, quite a way below an election-winning altitude.

There is an explanation for this. The Tories have not done enough to exploit the Government's unpopularity. Mr Howard has made a number of thoughtful speeches, which have received respectful attention in the press. This would have done him a lot of good, if the average voter were in the habit of reading such texts. As it is, most voters always know much less about the opposition than they think, and their view of it is strongly influenced by their opinion of the Government. Only when their negative instincts have been fully aroused will they form a benevolent view of the opposition and its policies.

1945, 1951, 1964, 1970, 1979, 1997: in each change of government, the negatives were more important than the positives, especially in 1997. How many people can remember any of Mr Blair's policy pledges. But "sleaze" and "22 Tory tax rises" are still resonant in political debate. Yet Michael Howard and some of his advisers are inclined to downplay the importance of negative campaigning.

There are three inter-linked reasons for this strategic misjudgement. A number of high-minded Tories hated the tone of the 2001 election campaign. They believed that William Hague was far too negative: sometimes, indeed, positively snarling. They deplored his failure to convey any generous-minded vision of Toryism, and they thought it plain silly to tell the British people that there was only a week to save the pound. The British people knew this was untrue.

Though there was force in this critique of the Hague campaign, it overlooked one crucial fact. For the Tories, that election was un-winnable. The voters were not yet ready to change. There may have been growing scepticism, but it was too early for the negatives. Had William Hague spoken with the tongue of men and angels, he might have won another 20 seats.

On the basis of 2001, however, Francis Maude, Michael Portillo and others decided there was a general lesson to be learned: the Tory party should eschew all negative campaigning. There is nothing more dangerous than a Thatcherite reincarnated as a herbivore, who now believes his party should base its future on contrition for its past.

But Mr Howard has been susceptible to arguments against negative campaigning. He felt that he had to live down his own nocturnal image and persuade voters that he was not part of a Romanian trilogy, along with Count Dracula and Vlad the Impaler. That is all very well - but not if he passes up the chance to impale Tony Blair.

The voters are now ready for negativity. Many of them have come to three conclusions about Mr Blair. They have decided that he often tells lies. They are convinced that his government wastes a lot of their money; the council tax is now a source of strong resentment. They also believe the Government has lost control of crime, immigration, asylum and Britain's borders. That is an inflammatory mixture, especially as there is a great deal of evidence to support all three propositions. It gives the Tory opposition innumerable opportunities, which it is failing to take. It is now time for Michael Howard to consult Chris Patten.

It would be widely assumed that Commissioner Patten was the patron saint of the Tory herbivores. These days, he might even think that about himself. Yet, as Neil Kinnock could testify, this is a complete misreading of Mr Patten's career in British domestic politics. In the late 1970s, he enunciated the Patten dictum; that nice men should be deployed to say nasty things, and vice versa. It was never clear how well the second half of that proposition worked. Was Norman Tebbit really the right choice to reassure the nurses or the grannies? But nice men talking nasty can be effective, as Chris Patten himself proved in the 1992 election campaign.

As Tory party chairman, he was on television a lot, and he would always beam seductively at the cameras, just like Winnie the Pooh thinking about the next jar of honey. But while he was smiling, the fists would smash into Neil Kinnock's kidneys and the kneecaps would rise into another sensitive region. No blow was too low if it would encourage a lower opinion of Mr Kinnock's prime ministerial qualities.

If Mr Patten had been a boxer, he would have been disqualified. As he was merely a politician, it worked. His combination of Winnie the Pooh and Sonny Liston helped the Tories win an unexpected victory. To have a hope of doing likewise, Michael Howard should now revive the Patten dictum.

Plus the Patten style; negative campaigning will be harder for the Tories than it was for Alastair Campbell. However undeservedly, the Major government had become the easiest of targets. Mr Blair is still some way from his just deserts. The Tories will need nightclub wit rather than Speakers' Corner rant. They ought to assail Mr Blair with fresh language, crisp phrases and new-minted mockery. If they do, they will find that plenty of people are now ready to laugh with them at him.

There is an obvious candidate for the Chris Patten role: Oliver Letwin. It could not be said that Mr Letwin is one of nature's negative campaigners. Years ago, when he was the Tory candidate for Hampstead, I made a speech on his behalf. I said that he had only one fault; he was excessively chivalrous towards his Labour opponent, Glenda Jackson. He ought to remember that in the age of chivalry, she would have been burnt as a witch.

He was unconvinced. But if he could now be persuaded to set about this government, he would do well. No shouting or finger wagging, always more in sorrow than in anger, always smiling; that is the way to charm the television audience, while punching the government minister in the solar plexus. Chris Patten should give him some lessons.

There are others who could assist him, especially Liam Fox, one of the joint party chairmen. Mr Fox's naughty-boy grin is said to work well with female voters. If he could restrain a tendency to use clichés and stale language, he too could be a smiling, subtle attack-dog.

While all this is going on, Michael Howard should generally sound prime ministerial, even presidential. But he would find it much easier to command the voters' attention if they felt their anxieties were being expressed, and with them, their own increasingly negative attitude towards the Government.

No one would have predicted that a Howard-led Tory party would turn out to be defective in negative campaigning. Thus far, so it has proved, and there is not long to turn this around. It is time for Mr Howard to tell one or two colleagues that there ought to be something of the night about them.

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