The magic circle missed a trick

The Long View
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The Independent Online

Conservative MPs have performed a political conjuring trick. They waved their wands and Iain Duncan Smith vanished. They waved their wands again and Michael Howard replaced him. With a final magical flourish a warring party became united. Those on the left of the party declared enthusiastically that Howard was their man. The social liberals rallied around. The pro-Europeans were jumping with joy. The majority in the party still firmly on the Eurosceptic right could hardly believe their luck. They had picked a winner without having to change a single policy or defend their deeply held beliefs in a leadership contest. This is magic that makes David Blaine seem like an amateur.

On one level the MPs have good cause for their euphoria. They have ditched an incompetent leader and replaced him with one who is more rounded and much wiser. Michael Howard will win many bouts against Tony Blair at Prime Minister's Question Time, especially at a time when the Prime Minister has got a lot to answer for. Already the right-wing newspapers are cheering him on. For the past 13 years these powerful propagandists have been screaming in a political vacuum. Now they have a leader that they admire and will help to present in the most attractive light possible. In 1975 when Margaret Thatcher became leader the Daily Mail re-christened her "Maggie", making her sound immediately more accessible and ordinary. Now the Mail is working hard to project Mr Howard as a new political hero. Perhaps he will be known as "Mike" Howard before very long. Tony Blair, who never knowingly underestimates political opponents and usually overestimates them, will have noted uneasily that The Sun has welcomed Mr Howard and published his first newspaper interview. The media tide swung against the Government long ago. At the very least Mr Howard will enjoy a honeymoon in the newspapers, an important boost that neither William Hague nor Iain Duncan Smith enjoyed.

Mr Howard's ascendancy is well timed. I have a theory that a leader of the opposition who takes up his post at the beginning of a parliament is almost bound to lose the next election. Voters and the media tire of leaders who can do little more than make speeches and score political points. Neil Kinnock, William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith all became leaders of the opposition immediately after an election. None of them became Prime Minister. Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair all got the job more or less at the mid-term point in a parliament with the next election moving into view. They all won. Like the victorious trio Mr Howard will still be something of a novelty by the time of the next election, at least in his new role.

All of these are positive developments for a party that was falling apart one week ago, but they do not in themselves amount to a giant leap forward. Let us stand back from the intoxicating magic and consider how the conjurers performed their feat. They replaced one Eurosceptic right-winger with a far more accomplished Eurosceptic right-winger. With his usual candour Ken Clarke announced that he would not stand because he did not think he could win. He did not say that his support for Mr Howard was based on a complete agreement with him over how the Tories should move forward. The former Chancellor praised his old friend's qualities, pointed out that the two of them had known each other since they were teenagers and looked forward to helping the Conservatives in the future.

On Europe he was less ebullient. Mr Clarke was confident that the new leader would not give the issue too much prominence. But Europe is bound to become increasingly prominent whether the new leader likes it or not. In his interview in The Sun Mr Howard reiterated his party's call for a referendum on the new convention claiming that Britain risked being "swallowed by an undemocratic superstate". What do the Conservatives do if the British government signs up to a revised constitution? Lord Tebbit, seeking to be as helpful as ever, hinted on yesterday's Today programme that his party might have to advocate withdrawing from the EU. No wonder Mr Clarke chose to focus more on the safer terrain of their teenage friendship.

Michael Portillo explained his reluctance to stand in a leadership contest in precisely the same terms as Mr Clarke. He did not say: "How could I put my name forward when we have an ideal leader?" Instead he made clear that he did not have a chance of winning: "There is no point in standing when you know you are going to lose."

There was a steely, troubling message implicit in the seemingly friendly reactions of Ken Clarke and Michael Portillo, one that is echoed privately by some of their supporters: "This bloody party is still not prepared to shrug off its past and elect someone with a broader appeal." The sudden outburst of unity in the Conservative Party is more precarious than it seems.

Mr Howard is an intelligent and agile politician. Evidently he plans to acquire a broader appeal, although this is very different from starting with wide support in the first place. Francis Maude, an ally of Mr Portillo's, was one of those called in to help with Mr Howard's inclusive and consensual statement last Thursday. Mr Howard sounded more like Tony Blair, which is not surprising as most of the lines were lifted from early Blair speeches. Stephen Dorrell, an erratic ally of Mr Clarke's, is now firmly in the Howard camp. Mr Howard has supporters to the left of him and supporters to the right. The words and symbols all point to a new beginning.

But as Tony Blair discovered, political symbolism is much easier than devising the policies to go with them. In opposition Mr Blair would occasionally visit a council estate to symbolise his determination to "modernise the welfare state". It took several years before he came up with any policies. Mr Howard is in a different position. He is deploying a Blairite tone, but has inherited and apparently supports a set of policies that were rushed through to cut a dash at the Conservatives' conference. They make the programme proposed by William Hague at the last election seem tame and pragmatic. The policies appeared from nowhere last month without any great internal debate preceding their publication. Now the Conservatives are changing a leader without a contest or a debate. They are still too scared to debate what they are for or where they are going, pre-conditions for a sustained recovery.

The coronation of Mr Howard suggests that in policy terms his party does not plan or seek many revisions. If the Conservatives had anointed Ken Clarke last week the New Labour high command would have been even more defensively neurotic than it usually is and the Liberal Democrats would have concluded mournfully that their latest golden opportunity had passed. Such an outcome would have shown that the Conservatives had really changed, ready to cast aside old prejudices in a hunger for power. As it is, the Liberal Democrats are already racing down to Mr Howard's constituency in Folkestone with the intention of winning his seat at the next election. Senior strategists are comparing Mr Howard's position in a relatively marginal seat with Chris Patten's in 1992. Patten was party chairman, but lost his seat in Bath to the Liberal Democrats, partly because he was distracted by his duties as national politician.

In my view the Liberal Democrats are being far too optimistic in their aspiration to be the main alternative to Labour. The Conservatives are never going to die in England, a country that elected them with enthusiasm for four successive general elections. The events of last week confirm that reports about their strange death have been greatly exaggerated. But it will never fully come to life until it wants to be led by a figure like Ken Clarke. The conjurers could not pull off that trick. They did not even want to try.