His policies are popular, his poll ratings are poor. So what's gone wrong for Howard?

It is possible that polls are underestimating Tory support and that they will perform better than anyone expects
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The Independent Online

Michael Howard must wake up some days and wonder what he needs to say or do in order to make political headway. The Conservatives espouse policies that are theoretically popular. Yet the party heads for a third landslide defeat. It is a strange mismatch. Mr Howard speaks for Britain, or a significant part of it, and the ungrateful country turns away.

Michael Howard must wake up some days and wonder what he needs to say or do in order to make political headway. The Conservatives espouse policies that are theoretically popular. Yet the party heads for a third landslide defeat. It is a strange mismatch. Mr Howard speaks for Britain, or a significant part of it, and the ungrateful country turns away.

Take the case of immigration and asylum seekers. Most voters want tougher policies. Yesterday Mr Howard promised to get tough. A Conservative government would withdraw from the UN Refugee Convention, introduce annual quotas, adopt a points system to identify economic migrants and introduce round-the-clock security at ports, no doubt beefing up the round-the-clock security that already exists. Those voters who worry more about this issue than any other, and there are quite a lot of them, have a party that worries on their behalf.

The contrast is more marked over Europe. Polls suggest a large majority of voters oppose the new EU constitution. At the same time, most of them want to remain part of the EU. This is precisely Mr Howard's position. He has promised an early referendum to put an end to the matter once and for all, but unlike the United Kingdom Independence Party, would not withdraw from the EU. On this he is closer to the current national mood than the pro-European Labour party and the Liberal Democrats. More widely, on international, affairs Mr Howard represents a significant section of the electorate that supported the war against Iraq, but conclude now that Mr Blair exaggerated the immediate threat posed by Saddam.

As for the economy, Mr Howard pledges to maintain funding on public services while setting aside some cash for modest tax cuts. I am told that Mr Howard and his shadow chancellor, Oliver Letwin, fought off their more excitable colleagues, who dream of headlines about dramatic tax cuts. Within a day of the launch, they were rewarded by the active support of former Chancellor, Ken Clarke. There have been times when Mr Clarke was conspicuous in his defiant inactivity. But last week he hailed the package as the first signs of a return to "one nation" conservatism. Mr Howard appears to have cracked it. Yes he offers tax cuts. With the blessing of Mr Clarke he inserts a dream adjective. He claims to offer "responsible" tax cuts.

So what has gone wrong? This column believes that taxes need to rise in order to fund decent public services. Similarly it will put the case for a "yes" vote if the referendum is ever held on the European constitution, and is relaxed about immigrants, especially as a lot of them seem to be plumbers and dentists. But this column does not pretend to speak for Britain and is not standing for election. It remains a conundrum: why are the Tories doing so badly when their policies chime with the instincts of many voters and powerful battalions in the media?

The Conservatives' plight is very different to Labour in the 1980s. Then Labour was unpopular because of its policies. Once Labour had changed the policies the party became popular again. The Tories are in the odd position of having popular policies and yet are deeply unpopular.

One possible explanation is that on immigration, tax and Europe this column does indeed speak for England. Sadly I do not see much evidence for this. I am of the view that the electorate could be persuaded to move on all three fronts, but see little sign of such a shift yet. Still we talk of the "tax burden", as if paying taxes is a pain that we put up with instead of the route towards better public services. Europe is so unpopular that no Labour or Liberal Democrat leader will dare to mention it. Labour leaders were also under instruction to keep their heads down when the Conservatives launched their immigration proposals yesterday in case they seemed weak on the issue. I note that when Gordon Brown speaks of the need for a "progressive consensus" he deploys the future tense, suggesting there is not one established yet.

The second possible reason for the Conservatives' demise is that Tony Blair has strode on to their terrain, leaving them with no political space. On issues relating to immigration, asylum and crime there is something in this. The former Home Secretary, David Blunkett, under almost daily orders from Downing Street, never lost an opportunity to be more reactionary than his Conservative predecessors.

But on other issues Mr Blair has dared to be a little assertive. Although he has never made it a general election issue, Mr Blair is openly pro-European. On tax and spend, Mr Blair argues that tax cuts are not his priority - even if he does not put the case for tax rises. Mr Blair's determination to deprive the Conservatives of political space is a partial explanation for their conundrum. Even so, there are still significant dividing lines between the parties - and quite often it is Mr Howard who sings the more populist tunes.

In my view, there is a much more significant and underestimated factor behind the Conservatives' decline. After 1997, the experienced stars of the Conservative Party disappeared in a manner that was wholly unprecedented. A party needs dynamic and charismatic figures at the top to communicate policies. It is a romantic myth that parties recover from the bottom up. The opposite is the case. Charismatic, experienced and credible figures at the top give a party a sense of purpose, inspiring potential supporters. After the Conservatives' defeat in 1997 John Major went off to watch cricket, Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine went to the backbenches. Michael Portillo and Malcolm Rifkind lost their seats. Mr Portillo remained in the public eye, but was more likely to be seen on television lying on a psychiatrists' couch as he explained his love for Wagner's operas. There was virtually no one of great substance left to fight for the Conservatives.

Again this is in marked contrast to Labour in the 1980s where the charismatic titans all stayed on to fight their battles. After 18 years in power the Conservatives' stars were too exhausted or unpopular to lead a revival. In the 1980s, Labour had political superstars arguing over unpopular policies. Since 1997 the Conservatives had virtually no one to communicate popular policies, or at least populist policies.

Possibly there is a fourth reason. We obsessively speculate about what will happen to Blair and Brown in a third term and wonder whether the Liberal Democrats will make a sensational breakthrough. Yet staring in front of our eyes is a party putting forward policies that command significant support. Is it possible that the polls are underestimating the Conservatives' support and they will perform better than anyone expects? I only ask.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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