Michael Howard should back John Kerry

A public endorsement might be more beneficial for the Tories than he thinks

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Who should Michael Howard be cheering for in the presidential election campaign? His predecessors, William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith, had no qualms in associating themselves with George W Bush during the 2000 campaign. Mr Hague hitched himself to the Bush bandwagon long before Bush had even secured the Republican nomination. When he was still just a Governor, Bush invited Mr Hague to Texas and the two right-wingers swapped notes on what "compassionate conservatism" could do for both of their national election campaigns.

Who should Michael Howard be cheering for in the presidential election campaign? His predecessors, William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith, had no qualms in associating themselves with George W Bush during the 2000 campaign. Mr Hague hitched himself to the Bush bandwagon long before Bush had even secured the Republican nomination. When he was still just a Governor, Bush invited Mr Hague to Texas and the two right-wingers swapped notes on what "compassionate conservatism" could do for both of their national election campaigns.

There was a general assumption that a victory by Bush over Al Gore was good for the Tories and bad for Labour. Tony Blair was to be embarrassed and the personal rapport between Bush and Hague would somehow help create a wash of authority for the British Tories. So close was the relationship that shortly after the US polls had closed, but with the Florida count still unresolved, Hague took a personal call on his mobile phone from the president-elect. Although only a foreign opposition leader, Hague was one of the earliest visitors to the Bush White House.

Who to cheer used to be a simple decision for British political leaders. Tories regularly raced across to the Republican convention on freebies while Liberal Democrats and Labour politicians where offered similar hospitality in the Democratic Party. I remember vividly the 1980 presidential election campaign between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. On our junkets to Washington, the Republicans lionised Young Tory MPs like me, who had been elected on the coat-tails of Margaret Thatcher.

Thatcher had been in office for just over a year and the Republicans were only too happy to borrow from her style, personality and policies in the way they promoted Reagan. So, for over 20 years Republicans and Conservatives have enjoyed a relationship of unparalleled proximity.

For the Labour Party, if not for Blair, the prayers are universally for John Kerry. For all the attempts by Blair to keep Labour MPs away from the Democratic Convention, there can be no doubt that nearly every Labour voter and Labour backbencher will be willing on Kerry. As Robin Cook has noted in his reports from Boston for this newspaper, Kerry's election would expunge the poison the Blair/Bush relationship has caused for the Labour Party.

For Michael Howard the initial temptation has been to hope for a Bush win. But is this wise? True, this would maintain the Republican/Conservative Party relationship. At a party level the Republicans are only willing to allow visiting Tory MPs on to the convention floor. Bizarrely they are not permitting visiting Labour MPs to enjoy similar privileges. And, while a Bush victory might be personally well received by Blair, it would cause apoplexy within the Labour Party and ensure that the shadow of Iraq will be an ever present danger in the run-up to the British general election.

So, tactically, Tories might hope that Blair would face the election here with thousands of Labour Party workers continuing their current canvassing and voting strike because of the Blair/Bush relationship. With re-election safely under his belt Bush will be an even more dangerous rogue elephant in international affairs than now. He will have no need to consult Blair in the event of some as yet unforeseen incident - yet Blair will continue to be tied to his apron strings.

But the British voters' loathing of the Bush/Blair relationship has not been of assistance to the Tories during the past three years thanks mostly to their own support for the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions. Voters currently see the Tories as gung ho as Blair for the Bush presidency. So maybe it is now time for Howard to bet on Kerry.

No doubt the Tory leader's public line will be that American elections are matters for the American people. Yet that is only a necessary convention to be observed by the government of the day - and even then can be easily breached, as it was when Margaret Thatcher scarcely disguised her hope that Jimmy Carter would be defeated. Howard is not in government. And no one has criticised Charles Kennedy for attending last week's Democratic Convention and being publicly partisan in favour of Kerry.

Intriguingly, a number of prominent Tories have already taken a public stance in support of Kerry. Michael Portillo and Alan Duncan have come out as Kerry "voters". And although George Osborne - one of the Notting Hill set around Michael Howard - is sticking with Bush, even he recently noted, in The Spectator, "among Conservative MPs, let alone with Conservative supporters in the country, it pains me to report that we Bushites [he includes Howard in his count] are in a minority".

Osborne thinks that some Tories' opposition to Bush is because they are behaving like a child whose best friend has just gone off and become friends with the popular kid [Blair] we hate". But it is deeper than that. This country really is scared of Bush and a public endorsement by Howard for Kerry might be more beneficial than he thinks - especially if Bush still wins.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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