A touch of Blair in strong performance

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The Independent Online

Within 24 hours, Conservative MPs have metamorphosed from funereal conspirators to euphoric cheer-leaders. Part of the reason for their almost manic cheerfulness is the sign that Michael Howard has gone through a modest political metamorphosis himself.

At the launch of his leadership campaign yesterday, the new leader-in-waiting sounded more like Tony Blair than a former minister firmly based on the Thatcherite wing of his Party. Indeed, Mr Blair has delivered virtually the same words in his speeches.

Quite deliberately, Mr Howard echoed the Labour leader by stating that he wasn't "born in the Conservative Party". He had chosen it. Mr Blair has made much of his assertion that he was not "born into the Labour Party". Mr Howard said he would lead from the centre of the party, distancing himself from the right as Mr Blair distanced himself from the left.

In case anyone was in any doubt about his message, Mr Howard pledged a "new kind of politics". I was almost expecting him to declare a desire to lead the New Conservatives, a party that would create a New Britain, a Young Britain.

Mr Howard is a performer. He delivered the Blairite language with conviction yesterday. The ability of a political leader to perform should not be underestimated. Iain Duncan Smith's failure to do so was part of his undoing. William Hague's oratory probably saved him from being removed as leader before he chose to go voluntarily.

Evidently, Mr Howard is not relying on his ability to perform alone. He wants to reposition his party. Over the next few days, he will make plenty of symbolic gestures to show he is serious about being an inclusive leader. The problem for Mr Howard is the policies he and his party have espoused in recent weeks do not match his new consensual tone.

In opposition, Mr Blair tended to keep his policy options open. His speeches could be roughly summarised as: "I vow to change the world. We will give all secondary schools access to the internet".

Yesterday Mr Howard repeated his support for populist Conservative policies that have not been thought through. Some would cause chaos in the public services if they were implemented. Their plans also imply substantial increases in public spending in the short term. Yet Mr Howard again held out the prospect of tax cuts in his statement. If he wants to make real headway he will need to review some of his party's wackier policies.

Conservative MPs have cause to be happier than they were at the start of the week, but not as happy as some of them appeared to be yesterday afternoon. Personalities and performance matter hugely. Policies matter even more.

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