Campaigning in August, reverting to old themes on crime - Mr Howard is desperate

The Tory leader may only have until May to convince the public of his case to become Prime Minister
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The Independent Online

Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas Home are probably spinning in their graves at the thought that one of their Tory successors, Michael Howard, has used the week of the Glorious Twelfth to make a major political announcement.

Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas Home are probably spinning in their graves at the thought that one of their Tory successors, Michael Howard, has used the week of the Glorious Twelfth to make a major political announcement.

Thirty years ago this month I began working for the Conservative Party as a tutor at Swinton Conservative College - an arm of the Conservative Research Department - in North Yorkshire. Part of the magnificent castle, owned by the Earl of Swinton who had served in Churchill's government, was rented by the Conservative Party for internal brainstorming conferences for candidates, students, MPs and voluntary party workers. But my abiding memory of those first few weeks was of the late William Whitelaw and other Tory luminaries of the day setting off from the great house in their plus fours for the estate's grouse moors. Nothing could ever persuade Willie to give up his guns for politics during late August - even though a general election, the second that year, was only weeks away.

Tony Blair may not hunt, shoot or fish, but he has brought back into the 21st century the 19th-century notion that the Prime Minister should give himself - and us - a long break from politics. While the silly season controversy surrounds the length and opulence of his Caribbean and Italian holidays, the public - if not the Labour Party - is probably indifferent to, indeed even grateful for, his absence from the airwaves.

From the Government's point of view, it makes sense to turn down the political volume in the hope that the current complacent mood of the country translates into benign support for the Government when the run-up to the general election next May commences at the autumn party conferences.

This probably accounts for the inscrutable manner in which John Prescott has been so effectively minding the Downing Street shop. Contrast this with the events last August surrounding the death of Dr David Kelly, the subsequent Hutton inquiry and the resignation of Alastair Campbell. Mr Prescott had to attend Dr Kelly's funeral and handle the media fallout when a No 10 press officer referred to Dr Kelly as a "Walter Mitty" figure.

Mr Prescott has not allowed himself to be either seen or heard since he took over command of the ship of state nearly three weeks ago. He has deliberately refrained from seeking the limelight, and this has done much to still the opportunities for trouble-making and severely limited the scope of his political opponents. Minor government announcements have been left to junior ministers, with only unexpected events likely to upset the organised calm that Mr Prescott has engendered.

But for Michael Howard there is an entirely different agenda. Mr Howard has been Tory leader for 279 days. On the assumption that there is a general election on 5 May next year, he has 266 days left to convince the public of his case to become Prime Minister. This week, after barely seven days abroad, he abandoned the Tuscan sun for the Teeside storms to make his Middlesbrough speech on law and order. Then yesterday he and David Davis, his home affairs spokesman, were out on patrol rooting out yobbish behaviour in Leicester Square.

In terms of overall strategy and tactics, Mr Howard's summer offensive makes absolute sense. Last year, during the media bun-fight over the Hutton inquiry, the Tories decided to keep their heads down. But this year, with the media deliberately starved of political fodder by the Government, the Tory leader is rightly making the most of his opportunity to get an uninterrupted public hearing. After a shaky start, when he failed to kill an unhelpful silly season story about "bedblocking" MPs whom the "Notting Hill set" supposedly want pensioned off, Mr Howard and his senior lieutenants, David Davis and Oliver Letwin, have had the media field to themselves.

Law and order is an issue that Mr Howard regards in the way a Surrey cricketer, called on to bat for England, enjoys playing at the Oval. He is happy playing on this familiar home ground where he made his reputation as Home Secretary a decade ago. The phrase "prison works", used in his 1993 party conference speech, was missing from his Middlesbrough speech. But the commitment to build more prisons, to abandon the recommendation of the Macpherson report on police "stops", and the promise to reverse early prison releases mean that, on crime and punishment, this is unapologetically the old "something of the night" approach.

If we were promised a new vehicle when the Howard leadership was launched last November, closer inspection reveals that it is turning out to be more of a respray job on the old model. This is not to say that Mr Howard has necessarily got it wrong in the eyes of public opinion. Yesterday, I was privileged to participate in a BBC News 24 discussion on the Howard crime speech with the eminent Mori pollster, Bob Worcester. He was in no doubt that the polling evidence supports Howard's way and that the crime issue will be high up the agenda during the election campaign.

But how will this message sit with the overall attempt to sell the totality of Tory policies on the basis of the new, kinder, more comfortable model we were promised at the Howard launch last November?

Mr Howard's crime policy alone begs a fundamental question on the affordability of Tory policies. Oliver Letwin will surely now need to revisit his February announcement that public expenditure, except on health and education, will be frozen for the first two years, and will then grow only at 2 per cent in line with inflation. In his speech, Mr Howard stated categorically, "Yes, prison-building costs money," and therefore appeared to make a new spending commitment that cannot have been costed in Mr Letwin's draft February budget. No wonder Mr Letwin was yesterday urgently making the case for civil servant reductions at the Department of Trade and Industry - although his promise of no redundancies suggests this will make little in the way of short-term savings.

The fundamental conundrum for the Tories, of providing high-quality public services while trying to hold out the prospect of stemming the current growth in Gordon Brown's borrowing in the hope that there might be eventual cuts in taxes, still appears unresolved. The administrative savings identified by Mr Letwin's committee headed by David James will, at best, merely hold the share of gross domestic product consumed by the state at the current figure of 42 per cent. Even if Mr Letwin's objective of 40 per cent is achieved, it is difficult to see where there would be scope for tax cuts without real term's cuts in departmental budgets.

Mr Howard's secret weapon may yet be unplanned, unforeseen events that could yet throw the Government off course. More increases in interest rates could cause families, most of whom live up to their budgets, serious financial pain. The uncertainties in Iraq could cause further oil-price shocks. And if Mr Blair were blown off course, thus delaying the election, the Tory leader would have another summer recess. Then, like last year, the Government would be in turmoil and Mr Howard could even permit himself some grouse shooting.