Transforming the Tory party was easy, now Mr Howard must win the country

As soon as any senior Tory confesses any ambition to cut taxes, Mr Blair sees a political opportunity
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The Independent Online

Michael Howard has already broken one record. No political leader has ever achieved such a rapid transformation in his party's morale. Only three months ago, it was impossible to exaggerate the depth of Tory gloom. Now, there is a dramatically different mood.

This is based on three achievements, all to Mr Howard's credit. He has reanimated the party machine. Even in the dark days, Tory central office was full of bright youngsters. Then, however, there was no direction, no leadership. That has all changed, utterly. Equally, Mr Howard is taken seriously in the press and in Parliament, thus overcoming a problem which always defeated Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague. To be taken seriously, an Opposition leader has to look like a potential winner. To look like a potential winner, he first has to be taken seriously by the media. But Michael Howard broke free from that vicious circle within seconds.

Finally, Mr Howard is also taken seriously in the country. Although a lot of voters have still to decide whether they like him or trust him, he is regarded as a potential Prime Minister: a sine qua non for electoral success.

In such a short time, this is an impressive performance. Yet it would be foolish for Tories to exaggerate its significance. One record, three achievements: that begins to sound like the doctrine of the Trinity, and there is a further religious parallel. The Pope delivers his Easter and Christmas messages Urbi et Orbi: to the city (Rome) and to the wider world. These days, there seems little distinction - but that is not the case in the Tory party.

The urbi side of Michael Howard's appeal - to the Tory family - has been almost 100 per cent successful. The wider world is a different matter. After all, Michael Howard's is hardly a fresh face; it is not as if the Tories had made Jonny Wilkinson their leader. Mr Howard and his party are still viewed with caution and indeed suspicion.

Even though Mr Blair is forfeiting public trust, this does not mean that the Tories will automatically regain it. It was never likely that Michael Howard would make a dramatic breakthrough in the polls. Tory recovery was bound to be an uphill slog, gaining a point here, a half point there: a task of magnitude, but Mr Howard never expected anything else. He has approached it in exactly the right way.

This includes the manner in which he projects himself. Even when so much is happening to the Tory party, it has been fascinating to watch Mr Howard growing as a politician. I had always felt that for all his considerable intellectual and moral qualities, he was too rigid to be a successful party leader in modern circumstances. Anyone who knew him at all well was aware that the real Michael Howard bore no relation to the caricature. That gap seemed unbridgeable, partly because Mr Howard hated to talk about himself. In his view, politics should be a battle of ideas and policies; to turn it into a personality contest would be demeaning.

Michael Howard's background may help to explain this reverential approach. Someone whose extended family included so many refugees and Holocaust victims might well find it impossible to be cynical about the democratic process or complacent about democratic stability.

But Mr Howard realised that he would have to throw off his inhibitions and allow public access to his true personality. This has been revealed as broad and endearing. De gustibus non est disputandum; even so, I find it almost impossible to believe that such an intelligent, cultivated man could take musical pleasure in pop music: a cacophony of crooning and caterwauling. In other circumstances one might suspect a vote-seeking politician of pretending to share the lowest of popular tastes. In Michael Howard's case, that would be untrue. His charge sheet for musical high crimes and misdemeanours stretches back at least 40 years.

At least his literary tastes are respectable. It is interesting that Tender Is The Night and Brideshead Revisited should be among his favourite novels; both are often misunderstood. The richness of the writing, the glamorous characters and events, can both deceive. These are more than threnodies for doomed romanticism. They are about the struggle to find and sustain enduring values in a crumbling world.

Michael Portillo is not the only senior Tory with a cultural hinterland. In the fullness of time, there could be interesting television programmes about Mr Howard's tastes. In the short-term, he has other priorities. He must establish broad political themes and detailed policies. At the end of last week he published a credo, arguing that Tony Blair has got it all wrong.

It should not be impossible for the Tories to argue that Tony Blair has got it all wrong. When only it can act, the state ought to be strong. In most other areas, where individuals should be allowed to take their own decisions, the state should stand back. Under the current government, the reverse has applied. There has been a vast increase in the cost of government and in its powers - everywhere except where it matters, especially on law and order.

Public discontent with the failures of policing is now becoming almost explosive. It should be easy for the Tories to argue that the Government is failing the nation. But law and order will not be enough. The main electoral battleground is bound to be the economy. Tory economic policy is easily summarised: to bake a bigger cake. Given sensible economic management and a reasonable growth rate, public-spending increases and tax cuts could both be financed out of a higher national income.

Most of Mr Howard's supporters are Fabian Thatcherites. They believe that year on year, the state should spend a lower proportion of the nation's income and own a lower proportion of the nation's wealth. But as soon as any senior Tory confesses any ambition to cut taxes, Mr Blair sees a political opportunity.

During the last German general election, the PM became anxious about Chancellor Schröder's prospects. Tony Blair inquired whether his Christian Democrat opponents had been hit hard enough on their spending plans. The Chancellor's party ought to have been frightening the voters as to the consequences for local schools and hospitals if a Christian Democrat government were to cut spending.

That is how Tony Blair will try to fight the next election in Britain. Anticipating his tactic, Michael Portillo has recommended that the Tories should commit themselves to match all the spending increases that Gordon Brown will propose for the first two years of the next Parliament. But that could place an impossible burden on an incoming Tory chancellor. Yet some means will have to be found of reassuring the public, perhaps by pledging that a Tory government would not cut spending on health or education; an easy pledge to make and keep.

Mr Howard will have to decide what to do, and quickly. The next election will be decided on tax and spend, not on Scott Fitzgerald and Evelyn Waugh.