The Week in Politics: Howard will unite his party, but Hague is the man for No 10

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During a topsy-turvy week in politics, I have met plenty of Tory MPs who are convinced the tectonic plates at Westminster have shifted decisively in the party's favour. More surprisingly, I discovered that some sensible Labour MPs feel the same.

Michael Howard could not have had a smoother coronation as Tory leader. When I last met him, at the Tory conference four weeks ago, he had an unmistakable twinkle in his eye which told me that he believed he could soon be party leader. But he would not have dared to write the script that has unfolded.

Mr Howard has been given an unexpected fillip by the dangerous and destabilising public rift between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. It is true the media too often portray politics as snakes and ladders. Yet it is difficult to avoid the impression that Mr Blair and Mr Howard are on different ends of the same see-saw.

The new Tory leader is a long-time student of Labour's "big two". When Mr Howard won promotion to the Cabinet in 1990 as Secretary of State for Employment, his Labour "shadow" was Mr Blair. I knew both men well at the time. Indeed, I often felt as if I had a front-row seat in a game of chess between two skilful lawyers. Both men plotted their next moves deliberately; they often asked me what the other was up to as they tried to read each other's mind. They certainly respected each other, like two lawyers who could have a friendly chat after doing battle in court. It will be interesting to see whether such niceties apply after Prime Minister's Questions.

Back in 1990, Mr Blair was extremely wary of his much more experienced opponent, 12 years his senior. He made some symbolic breaks with Labour's past, weakening the party's links with the unions by ending its support for the closed shop, which forced workers to join a union, and its backing for secondary picketing.

For his part, Mr Howard was desperate to highlight Labour's links with its union paymasters, knowing that memories of the 1978-79 "winter of discontent" struck a chord with the voters. He repeatedly claimed that Labour's plan for a national minimum wage would cost up to two million jobs - which did not happen, largely because it was introduced at a low rate.

Now the roles of Mr Blair and Mr Howard are reversed: it is the Tory leader who must convince the public that he is modernising his party. It seems he has remembered a few tricks from the more junior counsel who repositioned New Labour. Mr Howard's language in the past week has had more than a touch of Blair about it. While Mr Blair, as Leader of the Opposition, had to ensure Labour reached out to Middle Britain, Mr Howard must now try to win it back and break out from the Tories' shrinking heartlands.

"We will set tests to see whether he is really modernising the Tories," one Blair aide told me yesterday. "He will be damned whatever he does. If he fails our tests, he will not be a moderniser. If he passes them, he will divide his party."

The Prime Minister also believes the new Tory leader will be encumbered by the policies he has inherited. While it will be difficult to abandon them, since he played a part in drawing them up, Mr Blair thinks the Tory programme includes a lot of hostages to fortune, such as giving vouchers to people who are already paying for private treatment and halting the planned increase in university places. The third line of Labour's attack on Mr Howard will be on his record as a minister. We can expect the phrase "Mr Poll Tax" to roll off Mr Blair's lips in the Commons. But there is no disguising the view in Downing Street that Mr Blair will be facing his most formidable opponent since 1997. While William Hague caused trouble at the dispatch box, he rarely managed that outside the chamber. Mr Duncan Smith achieved neither.

According to close aides, Mr Blair believes a strong opposition is healthy for democracy and good for Labour, as it will galvanise the party against its enemy. Mr Brown, it seems, has not yet got the message, though it may have been relayed by Mr Blair over dinner on Thursday.

The two men will undoubtedly have discussed the dividing lines between Labour and the Tories, one of Mr Brown's favourite themes. But what most worries Mr Blair is Mr Brown's apparent desire to highlight the dividing lines between the two of them, whether over Europe or who runs Labour's general election campaign. Such divisions will be more dangerous if Mr Howard unites his party. I believe he will do so because he has strength, experience and, most importantly, the respect of his party, which no leader since Margaret Thatcher has enjoyed.

Like Baroness Thatcher, Mr Howard may win the respect rather than the affection of the voters. But there is still a long road back to power and the Tory euphoria is premature. There is already heady talk among friends of Mr Duncan Smith that he will be the Tories' Neil Kinnock, the man who did the spadework that enabled Mr Blair to win power.

But I fear that the Tories may only be at the Michael Foot stage. Although I am sure Mr Howard will close the gap with Labour at the election, he is not my bet as next Tory Prime Minister. My money is on Mr Hague.