The ghosts of Black Wednesday show how hard it is for the Tories to escape the past

Old footage of City traders going berserk must be manna from heaven for Labour spin doctors

Yesterday was a very good day to bury bad news. So the early morning newspaper headlines which, together with John Major's interview on the Today programme, reminded us of the horrors of Black Wednesday and the damage it did to the Tories' reputation for economic competence, were forgotten - for now.

The Prince of Wales has successfully reconnected with one of the first loves of his life while managing to escape from the shadow cast by the intervening years since his separation from Diana and her subsequent death. Like them or loathe them, and notwithstanding their perpetual trials and tribulations, the Royal Family have proved adept at reinventing themselves and adapting to changing circumstances. Would that the Conservative Party - the party of crown and constitution - could perform a similar trick.

Thirty years ago today, however, the party did successfully appear to break with its past and became the first British political party to elect a woman as its leader. Whatever the extent of the expectations about her policy changes, nobody could doubt that the physical presence, alone, of Margaret Thatcher as Leader of the Opposition symbolised that the Conservative Party had changed.

Even if there were not to have subsequently been a jot of difference in the party's policies or attitudes in the run-up to the 1979 general election, every voter could see that the change of gender at the top of the Shadow Cabinet table made it easier for Mrs Thatcher to sell the message, "time for a change". Her gender, as much as any new policies, ensured that she never got bogged down by her opponents if they tried to link her to the failed economic record of the Heath government. A combination of fascination - and fear at the idea of a woman running the country always enabled her to convey to voters a message of something new - something different.

When he became Tory leader 15 months ago, Michael Howard sought to project a similar message that under his leadership there would be a fresh approach. "Breaking with the past" is often a compelling reason for changing a political leader, either of a party or of the country, and it is the ultimate appeal to voters tired of incumbents.

Mr Howard pledged, in the autumn of 2004, to live up to such expectations. In the speech launching his leadership campaign entitled "We must look forward - not back" Mr Howard said: "I've learnt that just winning an argument doesn't on its own win hearts and minds." It was hailed as a clear sign that there was to be a new Howard. But somehow during the last few weeks Mr Howard and the Tories have still been unable to escape from the long shadow of their past record in office.

Regrettably, it is clear that Labour has won the initial pre-election phoney war by seeking to establish that the ground rules of the election campaign proper will be about the past rather than the future. To avoid the challenges of the future, Mr Blair seems to be doing everything he can to talk about events long since forgotten.

Not all of this is Mr Howard's fault, or even within his control. The availability of the documentation relating to Black Wednesday under the Freedom of Information Act was entirely beyond his control. There may have been, in the words of Mr Major, "dirty works at the crossroads" over the manner of its publication, but under current legislation it is now legitimately in the public domain. However, the country was subliminally reminded yesterday of why they voted the Tories out in 1997.

As one who lost my own job as a MP as a consequence of the debacle over the exit from the ERM, I cannot view those wretched headlines from 1992 without feeling physically ill. Old television footage of City traders going berserk at the announcement of 15 per cent interest rates and recent interviews with Norman Lamont and Mr Major must be manna from Heaven for Labour spin doctors. There is clearly a case for examining the possible misuse of this legislation for electoral purposes, but this is unlikely to occur this side of polling day.

Tomorrow evening, in another of his excellent television political portraits, on BBC 2, Michael Cockerill focuses on Mr Howard - giving the Tory leader an opportunity to restate the extent to which he wants to move his party forward. But again, I fear, it will be the Labour spin doctors, as much as functionaries at Tory HQ, who will be cheering on Mr Howard's performance. The face-to-face interviews with Mr Howard bring out the genuine softy he clearly is in private. He displays a delightful shyness together with a game sense of humour - even when he is seen watching a cruel depiction of himself in a satirical sketch. In all the offstage "fly-on-the-wall" moments he comes across as charming, with a surprisingly warm personality.

But the programme leaves an enduring image of heavy baggage from his political past that will clearly be a central feature of the election. There are all those familiar scenes from the ministerial highs and lows of his cabinet career. Clips from the infamous Paxman interview with the 14 unanswered questions about the sacking of the prisons boss Derek Lewis is replayed, along with Ann Widdecombe's devastating "something of the night" speech in 1997 that wrecked Mr Howard's leadership bid a few weeks later.

Mr Howard's task during the next 12 weeks is to paint a picture of the Tory future that appears to bear no relation to the Howard past. So far, it is on asylum and immigration that he has made the political weather. For all the cavilling by Labour, he has set the agenda on this issue and, according to the latest (otherwise dire) poll from Populus, is trusted most by the voters to deliver results.

But he is a long way behind on the Tory answer relating to public services, and he has let himself down by failing, in the eyes of the public, to put them at the centre of his agenda - as he promised in his first speech, in Putney, as party leader. Every time before he speaks he could usefully engage one of his backroom boys to stick under his nose the first two speeches he made as party leader. Though there is no obvious inconsistency in anything he has subsequently said, voters have picked up that he appears to have moved away from the early emphasis on public services.

Alongside this electoral battle is the unspoken campaign by some for the Tory succession in the event of another electoral defeat. So far this remains below the surface - although Tim Yeo and David Cameron (supposedly one of Mr Howard's blue-eyed boys) were overheard this week by a Labour apparatchik in Westminster's Shepherd's restaurant, being less than flattering about the current leadership. Mr Howard should be warned that it is those who profess the greatest enthusiasm for his leadership who are already making their own personal calculations.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

Comments