I expose misdemeanours. You take advantage. He is an opportunist

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Opportunism is what you call politics when it doesn't work. That is why Michael Howard is so sensitive about Labour's often successful attempts to hang the label around his neck. Since he became Conservative leader in the surprise Palace of Westminster revolution last November, Howard has done many of the right things. He has restored Tory unity, morale and professionalism. These are all necessary but insufficient conditions of victory. Beyond that, he has struggled to assert himself. He is up against what the philosopher-laureate of the Government, otherwise known as the Deputy Prime Minister, recently described as the ceaseless flow of "events, events, events".

Opportunism is what you call politics when it doesn't work. That is why Michael Howard is so sensitive about Labour's often successful attempts to hang the label around his neck. Since he became Conservative leader in the surprise Palace of Westminster revolution last November, Howard has done many of the right things. He has restored Tory unity, morale and professionalism. These are all necessary but insufficient conditions of victory. Beyond that, he has struggled to assert himself. He is up against what the philosopher-laureate of the Government, otherwise known as the Deputy Prime Minister, recently described as the ceaseless flow of "events, events, events".

The genius of successful politicians is that they respond instinctively to the unexpected, as Tony Blair did to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. But such opportunities tend to fall to leaders in government. It is harder for leaders of the opposition to present themselves as setting the tempo of public affairs. Hence the importance for Howard of anticipating events. Positioning himself to take advantage of things that could happen is therefore part of Howard's job description. When it works it is called sound judgement, or embarrassing the Prime Minister, or a bold pre-emptive strike. So far, however, Howard has only been called an opportunist.

He tried to take advantage of the Hutton report in January by focusing on the question, which he assumed would be central, of whether Tony Blair, having just learnt of the death of David Kelly, told the truth to journalists en route to Hong Kong. Lord Hutton treated the question with such disdain that he did not even bother to answer it.

Last month, with more justification, Howard sought to reflect people's unease over the photographs of abuse by US soldiers in Abu Ghraib. He said, in an article in The Independent, that the Prime Minister was wrong always "to take the view that any advice he offers on US policy must be made in private and any disagreement kept secret". Surely a fair point that even - or especially - someone who supported the Iraq war was entitled to make, a point of tactics rather than principle. Yet it was too easily portrayed by the Government as a cynical manoeuvre.

Last week, it was petrol tax. Howard had already tried to take the initiative by asking Blair in the Commons: "Will he ask the Chancellor to drop the petrol tax rise due in September?" The Prime Minister counter-punched effortlessly, by the old trick of reading out a helpful quotation and then revealing who had said it. In this case it was Oliver Letwin, the Shadow Chancellor, who had said he didn't think there was "anything very material that the UK Government can do" about rising oil prices.

But as petrol prices continued to rise, Howard returned to the issue on Wednesday. Asked on the Today programme if the Conservatives would support protests against the level of fuel tax, he said: "As long as they are peaceful and within the law they may well be supported." Up went the balloon of opportunism. "The height of irresponsibility," thundered Edward Davey for the Liberal Democrats. The Tory leader's team was scrambled and spent the rest of the day trying to shoot down the balloon. As this newspaper's deputy political editor reports today, Howard was beside himself with frustration. "Tony Blair supported Michael Foot ... joined CND ... did over his best friend ... Tony Blair is opportunism personified."

But the balloon was already up, and the Labour Party was busy putting out figures to show that petrol tax had risen less under this government than it had under the Tories. Labour pointed out that the "duty escalator" - the decision to raise petrol tax automatically each year by more than the rate of inflation - was brought in by Norman Lamont and abolished by Gordon Brown. This was factually correct, but should only have drawn attention to greater hypocrisies. Brown did not abolish the fuel duty escalator because he suddenly realised it was wrong, but because the fuel protests of the autumn of 2000 had given the Blair government its first fright.

Nor was the escalator wrong in principle. Anyone with any sense of responsibility to future generations has accepted for some time that higher energy taxes are the price of environmental sustainability. There is a framed front page of the first edition of The Independent on Sunday, dated 28 January 1990, outside our office restaurant. "Ministers back 40p per gallon 'green' petrol tax," reads one headline. Worried about global warming and forecasts of huge increases in road traffic, Chris Patten, Tory Secretary of State for the Environment, had persuaded John Major that petrol should be more expensive, although it took another three years for the government to act.

What is peculiar - and had reached by September 2000 the limits of popular tolerance - is that fuel for road transport is taxed so much more heavily than for other uses. Petroleum gas used in homes or to generate electricity is lightly taxed, yet contributes more to global warming than road transport; aviation fuel is either taxed lightly (for domestic flights) or not at all (for international ones), and is the fastest growing contributor to the emissions that cause global warming. This leads us to one of the greatest and worst examples of opportunism in recent history, and its authors were Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

One of Blair's first "triumphs" as Labour leader, nearly a decade ago, came on 6 December 1994 when the Major government was defeated, by 319 votes to 311, on a Labour amendment to reduce VAT on domestic gas and electricity. It was short-termist, populist and a huge success. The level of tax on domestic energy is now untouchable. The most effective and economically efficient way to cut energy use in Britain has been ruled out for many, many years. No one, and certainly not Michael Howard, would dare to propose more balanced green taxes.

The next time the balloon of righteousness goes up, I shall remember the literal balloon that flew over one of John Major's party conferences at Bournemouth. It was the Tory party's own balloon, advertising a slogan of breathtaking unoriginality. It said: "Opportunity for all." But one of my colleagues misread it as "Opportunism for all". A suitable slogan for Michael Howard.

His opportunism on petrol tax was trumped within 24 hours by the opportunistic Chancellor saying he would in August review the 2p tax rise due in September. End of story. Just as Blair had shot his fox on the European constitution in April by promising a referendum on it.

One day Howard will take up a position for short-term, popular advantage, and it will catch the Government out. Then he will be acclaimed as a man of judgement, who performed a service to the national interest, exposing the misdemeanours of this government. But not this week.

Comments