Michael Howard must start sharing the limelight

His colleagues are reduced to sitting, mostly mute, on chairs at the corner of the stage
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The Independent Online

"Too much Michael Howard, Mr Howard." That seems to be the conclusion of the voters, according to the latest batch of polls that all point to a widening of the Labour lead over the Conservatives.

"Too much Michael Howard, Mr Howard." That seems to be the conclusion of the voters, according to the latest batch of polls that all point to a widening of the Labour lead over the Conservatives.

Watching the welter of television coverage of the election, I see far more of Mr Howard than of Tony Blair. The Tory leader dominates nearly every press conference. Occasionally a shadow spokesman is allowed to stand at the adjacent podium, but more often than not, as happened at the pensions launch on Sunday, they are reduced to sitting, mostly mute, on chairs at the corner of the stage.

The best thing Mr Howard's minders can do is to shield him from opinion polls - and shield voters from their party leader. It is useless at this stage to change the overall strategy. The compass was set on the Tories' five pledges - more police, cleaner hospitals, lower taxes, school discipline and controlled immigration - at the party conference last October. Any sudden change in the strategy would smack of panic.

To be fair to Mr Howard, there is invariably a wobbly moment at some point in any party's campaign. Even when Margaret Thatcher was on course to win a large majority in 1987, a serious panic - "wobbly Thursday" - occurred a week before polling day with a massive row between the party chairman, Norman Tebbit, and Mrs Thatcher's favourite minister, Lord Young.

Every party can probably afford itself one wobbly moment. Charles Kennedy had such a moment last week at the launch of his party's manifesto. While the press made much of his failure to understand Liberal Democrat local income tax policy, most voters seem to have been pretty forgiving. The general attitude - even among Lib Dem voters - seems to be that since no one else can understand their policies, a regular bloke like Kennedy can be similarly forgiven.

Mr Howard's tactic is to monopolise the Tory campaign to the exclusion of the rest of his team. Members of the Tory front bench are almost an irrelevance. The campaign is being calmly, efficiently and ruthlessly run by his own "kitchen cabinet", with most shadow cabinet ministers out of the loop.

I have yet to see Michael Ancram, the foreign affairs spokesman, Nicholas Soames, defence, Alan Duncan, international affairs, or Tim Yeo, environment, at any of the daily press conferences. David Davis was allowed out yesterday for only the second time in the past week - even though it is mostly his home affairs brief that dominates Howard's conferences. Mr Davis is providing useful campaign visits to marginal constituencies, and is probably heartily relieved to have more time to concentrate on his own marginal constituency where the Lib Dems pose a formidable threat.

The focus groups all suggest, however, that both Mr Howard and Tony Blair are voter turn-offs, so it may be time to call in the other big battalions. Just as Mr Blair has given equal billing to Gordon Brown and popular warhorses like Dr John Reid, is it not time for the Tory leader to bring on popular personalities such as Ken Clarke and William Hague? They may not be in the Shadow Cabinet, but they're both assets in front of the press. Hague is much more popular and more mature since he ceased to be party leader and, like Mr Clarke, can engage in good-natured banter with the media.

Mr Howard would probably recoil in horror, but reading the profiles of Boris Johnson on the stump in Henley, there is no doubt that the Tories' blonde bombshell could also provide a much needed human face to the national campaign.

Only a few Tories are questioning the prominence of the immigration and asylum strategy and are disappointed that the £4bn of tax cuts do not seem, so far, especially eye-catching. But most accept it would be wrong to alter the ship's course. The best Mr Howard can do is to gently alter the tone. A few days away from the campaign would not do any harm.

One of my predecessors in Cleethorpes, the late Sir Cyril Osborne, was right when he advised his party workers that voters could sometimes be disinclined to vote for him the more they saw of him. I certainly found that tiredness and irritability made me more of a liability the more I was exposed to voters.

My agent never tired of reminding me that, as a candidate, I was a mere "legal necessity" and would ban me from the constituency headquarters. She was happiest when I was miles away in the Lincolnshire wolds and unable to do any serious damage to the campaign. Though she is long since retired, I know she will be shouting at her television to Mr Howard as she did to me: "For goodness clear off until after the polls have closed."

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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