Michael Howard and the Tory dream team

This is a rare moment where a party leader owes no favours to his rivals, his critics or even to his friends
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The Independent Online

On 5 November 2002, Iain Duncan Smith raced round to Conservative Central Office calling on the Tories to "unite or die". John Bercow, a member of his Shadow Cabinet. had provoked a crisis by resigning a couple of days earlier, over the Tories' opposition to legislation facilitating gay adoption. It has taken the party exactly a year before finally choosing the "unite" option - albeit under a different leader.

Mr Bercow, along with many others, will be waiting anxiously by the phone over the next few days. He must be bitterly regretting the interview he gave to The Daily Telegraph just after his resignation, in which he expressed reservations about Michael Howard, with whom he had often clashed in the Shadow Cabinet over tactics.

"One Young Conservative," he said, "asked me recently, 'What shall we do with Michael Howard, present him with a carriage clock or a set of golf clubs?' That's too harsh, he's an excellent shadow Chancellor. However, sometimes there is considerable doubt as to whether he has signed up to the agenda of the modernisation of the Conservative Party."

Mr Howard now has the last laugh on Mr Bercow, and it would be entirely understandable if he decided to pay him back by letting him stew on the backbenches. This is a rare moment in British politics where a party leader owes no favours whatsoever to his rivals, his critics, or even to his friends.

That is not to say that the toady count isn't extremely high at the present time. Even loyalist supporters of Mr Duncan Smith wasted no time grieving for their defeated hero. After the crocodile tears, the mascara was quickly applied before trooping round to Mr Howard's launch at the Saatchi Gallery, to secure the best vantage points to be captured on television.

But as Mr Howard contemplates dishing out the spoils of office (pretty meagre, anyway, in opposition), he may think carefully of the benefits to party unity of bringing on board those, like Mr Bercow, whom his advisers may think he can do without. He has got Mr Bercow where he wants him. Inside or outside the tent, Mr Bercow will give him no trouble. The reason Mr Bercow should be recalled has nothing to do with the rights and wrongs of Mr Bercow; it would be a demonstration that Mr Howard really has changed. To reinstate a junior who insulted the boss is the best demonstration that the boss really is a big man.

Yesterday's Mori poll for this newspaper should remind Mr Howard that the warm glow of euphoria that has enveloped the party has done nothing yet to impress voters. The poll showed that, since Mr Howard's candidacy became a certainty, there has been a further loss of support for the Tories of 3 per cent and a similar increase in Lib Dem support. Not that Mr Howard need lose undue sleep over this. I suspect that most respondents still had the previous weeks of bloodletting at the forefront of their minds.

But Mr Howard will have to make a number of public demonstrations in the coming months to show that his new mellowness, which we Westminster watchers have observed for some time, becomes evident to the wider electorate. So the re-shaping of his front-bench team offers him one such easy opportunity.

The past three leaders have usually rewarded their campaign teams first. One this basis, no doubt Dr Liam Fox and Oliver Letwin, are - deservedly - likely to be given top jobs. The smart money is on Dr Fox for the party chairmanship and Mr Letwin for shadow Chancellor. I just worry about pitching Mr Letwin against Gordon Brown. Brains galore, but I am more concerned about the possible gaffes. Why disturb Mr Letwin's successful tenure against David Blunkett at the Home Office?

So a call to William Hague must surely be worth a try. Mr Hague, it is said, refuses to budge. But he should recognise that Mr Howard, after being humiliated when the deal was broken at the time of the 1997 leadership election, nevertheless gamely served for a couple of years in his shadow Cabinet. This time Mr Hague owes it to Mr Howard to take on Gordon Brown, which was the original plan in 1997 when Mr Howard thought he was the senior partner.

Mr Howard said pointedly last week that he expected everyone to answer the call if asked to serve. Mr Hague is now a figure of considerable authority in the Commons, and would be as formidable against Gordon Brown as Mr Howard has been.

Dr Fox has displayed great skill in running Mr Howard's campaign, and will undoubtedly be on the shortlist for the party chairmanship. If he takes on the job, he will have to curb his inclination to rubbish others in the party. In his anxiety to point out that there were no deals with David Davis (which there were not) following the latter's decision not to stand, there was an unhealthy temptation by Dr Fox to spin a "how we stuffed Davis" story. If this style of chairmanship is taken too far in Central Office, we will not cure the backbiting which the party thinks is over.

And someone should take some trouble over Alan Duncan, who has sometimes also fancied his chances as party chairman. There is historic rivalry between Mr Duncan and Dr Fox that needs sorting out. Mr Duncan deserves a Shadow Cabinet appointment in his own right, and should have been there many years ago. But forget about this from Mr Duncan's perspective. Think what benefits Mr Howard would get from headlines like "Tory leader appoints gay to Shadow Cabinet".

The Portillistas present a problem. The sight of Michael Portillo warily clambering aboard the Howard bandwagon has been delicious. "Just tell us what to do," he told Mr Howard from the Breakfast with Frost sofa - suggesting that he might, after all, fancy a return to frontline politics.

But how committed is he? I noticed that he was not present at the memorial service for Sir Denis Thatcher. Even when he probably doesn't mean to be, he cannot help being a divisive figure. He has wielded his knife against the last three Tory leaders (having backed two of them - Major and Hague - at the beginning). But this time round, Mr Howard may be able to defuse his divisive tendencies, and Mr Portillo will have no option but to answer the call.

This party is undoubtedly back in business - more importantly, back in with big business. On Monday night, while the TV cameras were trained on the comings and goings outside Central Office, a few doors away, unnoticed by the media, the money men were trooping into the home of the Tory backbencher Charles Hendry. There, Sir Chris Gent (ex Vodafone), Michael Green (ex Carlton), Sir Richard Branson (Virgin), John van Kuffler (Provident Financial) and Sir Peter Davies (Sainsbury's) were among dozens of the City's finest who rubbed shoulders with Mr Howard.

This reminder of the Labour Party's own prawn cocktail offensive a decade ago suggests that a serious strategy to rebuild the financial base is already being put in place. Shortly, Mr Hendry will be holding another reception to bring the brightest of the recently selected parliamentary candidates to Mr Howard's attention.

So if the money moguls are already lining up to give a fair wind to the new Conservative landscape, yesterday's poll ratings can be left for another day.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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