At last, Labour will be facing an Opposition it must take seriously

Michael Howard's start in the leadership of the Tory party is as sure-footed as the coup which propelled him there
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The Independent Online

While Michael Howard's new streamlined Shadow Cabinet is something of a throwback to Churchill's in the late 1940s, it won't presumably emulate it in every respect. It's unlikely to meet in the Dorchester Hotel. Mr Howard is unlikely to humiliate his colleagues by calling them by the wrong name, as Churchill (no doubt deliberately) did by repeatedly addressing Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe as "Sir Donald"; or to infuriate them by keeping them in session until 2pm because he subscribed to the by then already archaic Victorian custom of beginning lunch at that hour.

That said, in two respects, Mr Howard is indeed returning to the example of his illustrious predecessor. First he has kept the numbers down to a more manageable 12. Secondly, by allowing the big hitters to range over more than one portfolio, he is going some way towards the Churchillian notion that in opposition portfolios of any kind were unnecessarily limiting.

He is doing all this, however, for a distinctly modern reason. Recognising that his colleagues are men and women whom most voters would have trouble naming, he has established a cadre of decent communicators, from David Davis at home affairs to David Willetts in the new role of policy development, who will now build up a profile by appearing frequently on television.

If nothing else this innovation is another sign of Michael Howard's start in the leadership being as sure-footed as the coup which (eventually) propelled him unchallengeably there in the first place. A surefootedness which Labour would do well to be anything but complacent about. No, there is no Kenneth Clarke, no Michael Portillo, and perhaps most surprisingly, no William Hague. Conventional wisdom is that Mr Hague, as an ex-leader who stepped down gracefully after losing the 2001 election, was entitled to turn down a job, if that's what he did. On the other hand, he owed a personal debt to Mr Howard, having spectacularly reneged on a deal under which he would have backed the latter as leader in 1997.

And while Oliver Letwin's appointment was widely predicted, it still puts in the shadow Treasury post a man whose high intellectual abilities haven't always been matched - especially on economic matters, in which he is an instinctive tax-cutter and state-shrinker - by the shrewdest political judgement. He will have to discover some if he is not to join the long list of shadow Chancellors brutally cut down to size by Gordon Brown, who will certainly be honing some jokes about his opponent going missing during the 2001 election after suggesting that £20bn would eventually be cut from public expenditure.

But even this should not eclipse the overall skill - not to mention brutal realpolitik - with which Mr Howard has composed his team. Given how often Mr Letwin is identified by his fans as a future leadership contender, Mr Howard may calculate that it may not hurt to put him to the test in this way. His retention of David Maclean as chief whip is testament to the unusual role played by the whips' office in seeing off Mr Duncan Smith. He was unabashed in not offering jobs to Francis Maude, Anne Widdecombe or Stephen Dorrell big enough for them to accept.

He has been ruthless in casting Damian Green, one of the leadership hopes of the left of the party, from his job in education and the new Shadow Cabinet. By doing so he has raised the ghost of a possibility that the party might in time abandon its populist and opportunistic pledge to abolish university top-up fees. If Charles Clarke can come up with a credible scheme which Parliament approves, the Tories will be saddled with a policy for higher education which is either hugely expensive, élitist, or both.

The presence of David Curry, a Ken Clarke supporter but also an able, realistic politician with solid ministerial experience who was always, sensibly, on Howard's little list of potential appointees, means a genuine measure of ideological balance. As does the presence of the ex-Portillistas Tim Yeo and Theresa May in big jobs. As does the creation of a new grandees' council which includes Mr Clarke as well as Mr Hague and John Major.

To an outsider it may seem odd that Ms May is being moved to an expanded brief of environment and transport when she didn't exactly excel at transport alone when she was there. Particularly when she has been an innovative party chairman who has launched an imaginative experiment in selecting parliamentary candidates by US-style voter primaries, which begins tomorrow night in Warrington.

But that ignores the real message of his joint appointment of his close ally Liam Fox and Lord (Maurice) Saatchi to replace her. In Mr Fox's case, Mr Howard is reverting to the once inviolable law under Margaret Thatcher and John Major that the party chairman sinks or swims with the leader, sharing the blame for failure as well as the credit for success. By contrast, Iain Duncan Smith appointed Mr Davis, not a natural ally, to the chairmanship, and so allowed Central Office to become a rivalrous alternative power base.

Meanwhile Lord Saatchi, the man who not only masterminded the themes of the 1979 Thatcher campaign but was brought back at a low ebb for her government in 1986 to sharpen the campaign which propelled her back to a third victory a year later, is both the leading master of campaign messages in the Tory party as well as an astute businessman who will surely turn round the demoralised and faction-ridden hotbed of intrigue Conservative Central Office has become.

In a way Lord Saatchi, like Mr Howard himself, precisely because they can be depicted as throwbacks to the Thatcher era, epitomises the danger now confronting Labour. Which, more than anything, is complacency. Tony Blair is already being advised by his pollsters to relax because all the polling suggests that Mr Howard is too closely identified with the Thatcher administration of which he was seen as a particularly heartless exponent.

He will be making a grave mistake if he listens too closely to this. Up to now there has been little reason to see Mr Howard any other way. A successful period in opposition by a highly professional and - in part - reinvented Mr Howard could give the voters something else to think about him rather quickly. Competence counts for something, particularly when up against a government as unloved as this one.

On many issues, Mr Howard is no doubt vulnerable. He is unlikely to perform the ideological U-turns with which Neil Kinnock cast off his own past on the outside left. But Labour is in a real contest at long last. Come the next election, it can no longer rely on the luxury of an Opposition led by people the voters find it impossible to take seriously. That has implications for how it performs, even more so for how it puts together a credible and persuasive third-term agenda. If Mr Howard wanted to show he knew what he was doing, he could hardly have made a better start.