We have seen the Tories' best week since 1992

Michael Howard took on hard subjects in big speeches, and received a respectful hearing
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The Independent Online

Nicholas Soames, the shadow Defence Secretary, is one of those people who needs only to enter a room in order to make everybody else chuckle. He could say with Falstaff that he was "not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men". He could also play a good Falstaff, without needing any reinforcement of cushions, and he did act the role in a Falstaffian manner when he was one of John Major's ministers of food: an appropriate appointment.

Apart from Lord Woolton during the Second World War, Nicholas Soames was the best known minister of food ever. He was also the best fed. Uncle Fred Woolton tried to persuade the British people to enjoy their sparse wartime rations. Nick Soames might not have been so good at that. He does seem better-suited to peacetime plenty. His idea of rationing is to have no more than two lobsters or grouse on his plate at a time.

But Mr Soames is far more than a roaring roisterer. He is a clown, and I am emphatically not using that word in a derogatory sense. A clown is someone with a preternatural ability to keep the rest of us amused, who often finds the process stressful. Thus it is with Mr Soames. Winston Churchill, his grandfather, suffered from black dog moods. So, sometimes, does the grandson.

That explains why Mr Soames can be so thin-skinned. When this happens, the world is quickly informed. Nick Soames reacts to adversity rather like a bull elephant which has just tried to rest its sensitive parts on an aggressive thorn bush.

Thus it is at the moment, over Oliver Letwin's plans for public expenditure. Under these, education and health would receive substantial increases, to be funded by freezing the rest of government spending. This has upset Mr Soames, who foolishly assumed this would involve a cut in frontline defence capability.

It need not mean anything of the kind, especially as the defence procurement budget is still so wasteful. The UK is about to spend many billions on the Eurofighter, one of the most expensive planes in history, which is in danger of becoming obsolete even before it enters service, for it was designed in the days when the RAF was still assuming it might be required to penetrate Soviet air space.

Resources could be diverted from the Eurofighter to other defence projects, but the defence budget could also benefit from further savings. As the Government has recently admitted, there is waste throughout Whitehall. There are also departments whose entire existence is wasteful, most notably the Department of Trade and Industry. There is no reason why the next Tory defence minister should not increase his expenditure on desirable projects. He would merely have to deal with waste within the MoD, while committing cannibalism against his colleagues. Nick Soames would make a good cannibal.

Instead, he has sulked and leaked. Rather than dealing directly with Oliver Letwin, he demanded a meeting with Michael Howard. In politics, you can have influence or you can be pompous: rarely both. A retired major general of whom no one has ever heard, and who claimed to be briefing Mr Soames, was also quoted, making critical comments about Mr Letwin's plans. This chap seems to believe that his role as a confidential adviser should allow him to luxuriate in the personal publicity which has hitherto been denied him.

Mr Soames should have a care. Last week, I was chatting to one of the more promising members of the Tory frontbench team, who ought to be in the next Tory cabinet. He was not so confident about his prospects. Mr Howard, he said, was endlessly courteous. No frontbencher could complain about lack of attention. Anyone who asked for a meeting got one. The leader's manners were impeccable. But behind the smiles, the leader's eyes were cold and ruthless. Colleagues were being constantly evaluated. Mr Howard, who knows what it takes to be a successful cabinet minister, was always asking himself whether his current team had what it takes.

There are those who wonder whether Nicholas Soames has enough intellect to be the defence secretary. If he wants others to answer that question in the affirmative, he will have to do a lot better than he has in the past week.

But the rest of the Tory party can be more relaxed. It is a sign of the times that disagreements between frontbenchers as to the spending plans of the next Tory government are given extensive publicity, as if it were a matter of immediate relevance. This is a sign that the Tory party is back in the business of electoral power, and recent events will have helped. While not exactly 10 days that shook the world, it has been the best 10 days for the Tory party since the late spring of 1992. Europe, spending on health and education, asylum and immigration: Michael Howard took on hard subjects in big speeches, and received a respectful hearing.

The benefits are already apparent. Over the past few days, the Government has come out with announcements on a range of topics from new examinations to additional recruits for MI5. This was an attempt at news management, so as to ensure that the Howard speeches received minimal coverage. It did not work. Instead, Michael Howard appeared to be making the political weather, while government spokesmen were prancing around in the background saying, "Me, me: look at me.'' Nobody wanted to look.

All governments who have achieved longevity in office become impaled on a fork, whose two prongs are staleness and scepticism. Unless they keep the new ideas flowing, they are accused of growing stale. But if there are new projects, the voters, far from being impressed, are inclined to say: "If that is such a good idea, why has it taken you this long to get round to it?"

That is one reason why the Major government suffered such a heavy defeat. But the problem is already beginning to affect Mr Blair, partly because of his excessively personalised mode of government. A lot of voters are becoming bored. His creeping-Jesus manner grates on them and they find him insincere. Nor is it clear how he could recover from this. With every additional day in office, his political vulnerability is increasing.

This gives the Tories a chance, though only a chance. Under the old political rules, indeed, there would be no chance. In the old days, any opposition with a real prospect of winning an election was expected to be 10 points ahead at this stage of a parliament. It was also assumed that voters who felt comfortable about their own economic circumstances, would not sack the Government on election day.

Do the old rules still apply in an era of unprecedented electoral volatility? I would estimate that no more than 40 per cent of the voting public have definitely made up their mind as to what - and whether - they will vote next time. There is everything to play for, and the election campaign itself will have a crucial influence. I also suspect that a lot of voters will not make their decision what to do until the final hours.

In one respect, we should feel sorry for Michael Howard. Over the past four months, he has done as well as could be expected, yet he is now feeling his party's hot breath of expectation scorching his neck. This side of an election, that will not change.

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