Mr Howard's performance as Tory leader is a triumph of style over substance

He has saved his party from a terrible death, but he has neither the will nor inclination to change it fundamentally
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The Independent Online

Michael Howard will go down in history as the leader who saved the Conservative Party. In an astonishingly short period of time, he has transformed his party from a shambolic wreck into a disciplined fighting force. On every front the Conservatives are making waves.

Late last night they were leading the onslaught in the Lords against the Government's proposals to scrap the Lord Chancellor's office and establish a Supreme Court. They plan a similar attack on Tony Blair's plans to introduce top-up fees for universities and, in this policy area, they will have the support of the Liberal Democrat peers. Last night the Liberal Democrats voted with the Government.

Mr Blair's difficulties in getting proposals accepted by MPs are nothing compared with the obstacles he faces in the Lords. This is partly because Mr Howard has told his leading peers to be more politically ruthless, to cause more mayhem for the Government, especially over policies that did not feature in Labour's manifesto. He knows that when the Lords make hay, it places at least as much focus on the competence of the Government as it does on the democratic accountability of the upper chamber.

Over in the Commons, the Tory leader displays a self-confidence lacking in his two predecessors. Much was made of William Hague's parliamentary skills, but Mr Hague could not make up his mind whether to be a right-wing skinhead, a compassionate centrist with a baseball cap or a combination of the two. Iain Duncan Smith was similarly confused, but without the parliamentary skills.

Mr Howard has been a senior cabinet minister and an Opposition frontbencher, witnessing at close hand the rise and fall of Margaret Thatcher, John Major, William Hague and IDS. Being Leader of the Opposition is one of the most difficult jobs in British politics and demands considerable experience. Mr Howard has served under so many figures in such a short period of time he has had plenty of lessons in how not to be a leader.

The new leader also has one other advantage not enjoyed by Messrs Hague and Duncan Smith. He has got the job half way through a parliament rather than at the beginning. Leaders of the Opposition who get their jobs at the start of a term tend to lose the next election. Voters get bored or wary of them after four years of posturing, press releases and soundbites. Mr Howard will still be something of a novelty - at least as a leader - when the next election is held. Mr Blair appeared similarly fresh in 1997 after his mid-term election as leader of the Labour party. Neil Kinnock, in contrast, was another who suffered from being elected at the start of a parliamentary term.

As far as the Conservatives are concerned, the contrast with what might have been is extraordinary. If Mr Duncan Smith had led them into the election they would have lost by a landslide for the third time in a row, a fatal blow. Instead, when the next campaign gets under way, Mr Howard will lead a grateful party and look as if he is almost enjoying himself. Indeed the party is so grateful Mr Howard can do more or less what he wants with it.

There has been much talk in recent years that the Conservative Party is unleadable. This is nonsense. It has chosen leaders incapable of leading, which is an altogether different matter. William Hague and IDS could also do what they wanted with their malleable party. Mr Hague's Tax Guarantee came from nowhere and formed the basis of his 2001 election campaign. IDS declared that his party supported an elected House of Lords in a newspaper article. The party bowed to these sudden policy pronouncements with little public protest.

Mr Howard has even more freedom because he has saved the party from itself. To take one example, if he had declared suddenly that his party supported top-up fees, his Shadow Cabinet would have rallied around and so would the rest of his docile tribe.

Mr Howard's decision to oppose top-up fees is one example of the limited way the new leader chooses to use his freedom of manoeuvre. He has done little to change the policy positions that he inherited from his predecessor. His performance is a triumph of style over substance. I do not say this pejoratively as, in opposition, style counts for quite a lot. Nonetheless the policies matter as well. Mr Howard's speech at the Harrogate conference last weekend was policy free. He wanted less regulation and lower taxes, but did not give many examples how he would achieve this. Indeed his opposition to top-up fees highlights his dilemma. At the moment, the Conservatives would spend far more on subsidising students than the current government.

Similarly, they plan to be recklessly generous to the elderly by linking their pensions to increases in earnings. At the same time Mr Howard's party proposes to be irresponsibly harsh on the budgets for defence, police, criminal justice, transport and international aid. The headline about a smaller state has a Thatcherite appeal, but the implications are less appealing, not least for those Shadow Cabinet members responsible for explaining how they will improve law and order, the security of the country, the creaking trains and much more besides.

In policy terms, the Conservatives are also on less strong ground as they adopt a newly disciplined ruthlessness in the House of Lords. Mr Blair's proposals to scrap the post of Lord Chancellor may have been rushed - another product of his lost year in which he fought the disastrous war and promoted a series of ill-thought-through domestic reforms.

Even so, the defence of the Lord Chancellor's post hardly makes the Conservatives seem forward-looking. The Government's proposal will free judicial appointments from direct ministerial interference, an important radical reform. Indeed the most substantial criticisms of the policy have come from those who argue that the separation of powers has not gone far enough, with the proposed independent commission only able to recommend judicial appointments to ministers. This limitation does not appear to be the main concern of the Conservatives, who want to block the entire package.

Nor is Mr Howard in a position to benefit politically from the war. He did not mention the issue in his speech at the conference, although it continues to be uppermost in ministerial minds. Those ministers I have spoken to in recent days do not believe that Mr Blair's speech last Friday, defending his approach to the war, will sway many minds. Revealingly, some do not believe that the speech deserves to clear Mr Blair from continued probing. I get the impression that Mr Blair remains isolated even in ministerial circles in his belief that it was the right thing to do. But he is not totally isolated. Mr Howard is with him in his support for the war and his defence of it origins.

The new Conservative leader has saved his party from a terrible death, but he has neither the will nor inclination to change it fundamentally. A class act will present a similar package of policies that the party submitted to the voters at the last three elections.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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