The Tory leader must prove he is not an opportunist

After the flip-flop over the Butler inquiry decision, it is time for the real Michael Howard to reveal himself
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The Independent Online

This weekend the Tories gather in Harrogate for their Spring Forum. For the first time since he became leader, Michael Howard will face the massed ranks of the party faithful. He can expect the usual deferential and rapturous reception reserved for Tory leaders on such occasions, and he will be guaranteed an easy ride regardless of what he has to say in his keynote speech tomorrow.

These gatherings, however, are potential nightmares for Tory leaders, who often fall prey to the temptation to perform crowd-pleasing rituals of Labour bashing and tasteless one-liner jokes. Iain Duncan Smith's final offering at the full party conference last October had the delegates rolling in the aisles and jumping to their feet for 18 standing ovations. But the spectacle proved to be a disaster in the eyes of the wider public. And it was at Harrogate that William Hague made his notorious "foreign land" speech shortly before the last general election.

So Mr Howard faces a Jekyll and Hyde task of, on the one hand, pleasing the party faithful and, on the other, of reaching out to the voters who do not currently support the Tories, but whose votes are essential if they are to make gains at the next election.

He also has to ensure certain epithets that have begun to attach to him during the past few weeks do not define him, adversely, in the longer term. Most observers have rightly congratulated him on taking advantage of opportunities presented by the Government's difficulties over Iraq, tuition fees, asylum and immigration. But there is a world of difference between opportunity and opportunism. The word "opportunistic" is beginning to stick to Mr Howard.

The decision earlier this week to withdraw co-operation with the Butler inquiry has reinforced this charge. Speaking on BBC1'sThis Week, Michael Portillo claimed that the Tory leader had damaged himself by his action and, as a consequence, had demonstrated that he "does not seem sure-footed". Of course, it is possible to be too po-faced about an opposition making trouble for a government going through difficult times. It is, after all, the job of Mr Howard to make life difficult for Tony Blair.

But after the flip-flop over the Butler inquiry decision, it is time for the real Mr Howard to reveal himself. Mr Portillo says that voters can be forgiven for being confused. He wrote recently: "In deciding what to think of the new Tory leader, should they call to mind the exceedingly tough Home Secretary of the Major government, or the man now leading his party towards social liberalism, for example by supporting civil registration of gay relationships?"

The announcement by the shadow Chancellor, Oliver Letwin, that the Tories will seek to reduce the state's share of gross domestic product, merely from 42 per cent to 40 per cent, suggests that the traditional Tory tax-cutting agenda will be neither the first nor even the last line of the next Tory manifesto. Yet this seems to undermine Mr Howard's "British Dream" speech last month calling for a smaller state where "low taxes give people the opportunity to make their own decisions to save, to give, to spend, to keep more for their families and their children." Mr Letwin's message also threatens real-term expenditure reductions for other spending departments - notably defence, transport, and local government.

This weekend is essentially a Tory work-in-progress occasion where it is unlikely that there will be any new, eye-catching initiatives that we do not already know about. The Tories' principal task in the coming months must be to try to distil no more than three or four simple messages which can be easily understood by the wider, currently non-Tory voting, electorate.

However, Mr Howard and Mr Letwin have created space for Tim Yeo, the health and education spokesman, to emphasise the centrepiece of a new Tory story. The patient passport and the embryonic education voucher have the capacity to excite the wider electorate without suggestions that they are code for cuts in these services. They provide the most genuine opportunity of extending real choice to the masses that have never previously been able to buy themselves out of state monopolistic provision of these services.

If the flesh, which may be put on the bones of these outlines, can be as compelling as the 1979 commitment to sell council houses, the Tories may be making the most significant attempt to reach out to poor, urban communities which have little to show for seven years of a Labour government - and these are precisely the areas which matter to Tories in the coming contest to regain parliamentary seats.