He must avoid the image consultants at all costs

Howard's reputation as a big hitter, rather than his personal popularity, is his best asset
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The Independent Online

Appropriately for the current Diwali festival of light, there was something of the daylight about Michael Howard as he donned the robes of leader-in-waiting in anticipation of his coronation next Thursday as king of the Tory party.

Politicians with a dubious past are, according to recent fashion, expected to go "on a journey". Michael Portillo began his "journey" from right-wing Thatcherite to a destination that is unknown either to him or to the rest of us. But Mr Howard's "journey" from the humiliation of being dumped by his junior running mate, William Hague, from the character assassination by Ann Widdecombe and the embarrassment of coming bottom in the 1997 leadership election, has a known destination. Whether he completes the ride is open to doubt. But he is trying to get to Downing Street. So at least we know where he wants to go - even if the route is uphill and littered with obstacles. Already, his anointment, however, will lead the Tories out of the undergrowth on to a tarmac road.

The fall and rise of Mr Howard has been spectacular. He was one of the most reviled of John Major's cabinet ministers by the time of the 1997 election. He did not seem to enjoy serving as shadow Foreign Secretary, but he renewed himself by taking a sabbatical on the backbenches. Iain Duncan Smith's greatest legacy will have been the appointment of Mr Howard as shadow Chancellor after the bruising 2001 leadership election, in which Mr Howard played no part. Because he has already had a distinguished career, he appears, in public, to be as relaxed as he has always been in private. I doubt he ever lies awake worrying about his Commons performances, which is why he has now adapted, with relish, to the gruelling and unrewarding burdens of opposition so much better than the rest of Mr Major's ex-cabinet ministers.

But now that he is about to become party leader, he will want to do more than be just be a caretaker. That old hunger which used to drive Tory politicians in the 1980s seemed in evidence yesterday. He might even be dreaming the impossible, of winning the next election, and he will certainly change the terms of political trade to Tony Blair's disadvantage.

Of course, we know from bitter experience that a mere change of leader is no guarantee of electoral Nirvana. But there is clearly a change of heart among senior Tory frontbenchers who have put selflessness above selfishness. David Davis, Tim Yeo and Michael Ancram have done no deals with Mr Howard and he can do with them what he will. They will obviously be offered Shadow Cabinet posts, although they cannot expect Mr Howard to necessarily respect their dignities and egos.

Those closely associated with Mr Duncan Smith's leadership will be gone. Bernard Jenkin, John Hayes, Bill Cash and other minnows will have to make way, perhaps for a return by Stephen Dorrell and Francis Maude - sending an important signal to the "modernisers". Sadly, it is doubtful that Michael Portillo will want to give up his media career. I sometimes wonder if it is entirely honourable to collect £55,000 from the House of Commons while using it merely as the green room of the television studios. William Hague has also ruled himself out, which is regrettable but more understandable. Similarly Ken Clarke looks set to remain on the sidelines. As for new talent, watch out for David Cameron, the rising star of the 2001 intake, who worked for Mr Howard as his special adviser in the 1990s.

In the end, however, the line-up of Mr Howard's shadow team is not the main issue. Sheer competence and hunger for power matter more. Mr Howard, some say, has an image problem with the wider electorate. What advice should he take from the image consultants? This is a question I have been asked endlessly on the media. Absolutely none. Mr Howard looks and sounds as he has always done. His reputation as a big hitter has been far more important in restoring respect for him, in the past two years, following his consistent dispatch-box victories against Gordon Brown. It will be this, rather than the extent of his personal popularity, that is his best asset in convincing voters to regard him as a potential Prime Minister.

Of course, this is not the time, yet, to crack open the champagne. The odds are stacked against the Tories winning the next election. But then the odds, of 12 to 1 against Mr Howard three weeks ago, prove that nothing is certain in politics. What is reasonably certain is that the Tories have had as much of a fill of their bloodletting as the rest of us. Even I, with an income that increases dramatically during their turmoil, have had enough. Egos among party workers, who feel cheated by this return of the magic circle, will have to be massaged but, contrary to the public perception, Mr Howard is not short on personal charm.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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