The Week in Politics: Resurrection will not be instant but there are signs of life

Click to follow
The Independent Online

At least Christ took two days to rise from the dead. If Michael Howard's most avid disciples are to be believed, the Tory party executed its resurrection in less than 24 hours.

Of course, wiser heads in the party know that it will take a lot longer to turn around public opinion after sporting a succession of lightweight leaders.

But it was the transformation of the former home secretary that was the overriding message he and his aides wanted to put across at his campaign launch on Thursday.

Mr Howard's attempt to reinvent himself as a caring, sharing creature of the centre-right was certainly the most striking feature of his carefully crafted speech on Thursday. Since 2001, observers have remarked that the shadow Chancellor has been on something of a journey from his former life as a reviled Major minister.

While Iain Duncan Smith was cavalier with his talk of tax cuts, Mr Howard was at pains to stress that they would have to come second to reform of public services. And when the outgoing Tory leader backed up Howard Flight's commitment to cut some Whitehall spending by 20 per cent, Mr Howard tried his best to avoid any such commitment.

Even though Mr Flight's remarks originally referred to bureaucracy, Mr Duncan Smith made the fatal error of backing the pledge when it was transmogrified by Labour into spending cuts across the board.

Given that Tony Blair will attempt to use the 20 per cent figure from now until the general election, not to mention every PMQs, Mr Howard could transform his party's chances overnight by announcing that he has dropped the whole idea. It remains to be seen if Mr Howard can be as bold as his rhetoric implies.

Once the 20 per cent albatross is removed, space would be cleared for a more effective presentation of the party's policies on schools, hospitals, crime and transport.

Turning Mr Blair's biggest negative, trust, into the Tories' biggest positive was one of many clever messages sent out by Mr Howard this week.

His "trust the people" message on public services could undoubtedly be a vote winner. In a consumer age, Labour is acutely aware that voters no longer expect the state to do everything for them. But it is precisely this zeitgeist that should be the Tories' central electoral asset; "Because it's your life" ought to be the party's slogan at the next election.

The buzz of the Howard launch, with hordes of MPs turning the Saatchi Gallery into a something like a Morrocan bazaar, was certainly a sight to behold. As one MP put it: "It's the first time I've been excited about politics since election night in 1992." But once the hype dies down, calmer voices around Mr Howard will know that they still have a mountain to climb to get back to power.

Mr Howard knows that he has to sound moderate and reasonable to recapture the lost millions of voters but in doing so cannot afford to sound soft on asylum and antisocial behaviour.

Ill-thought out policies will have to be junkedto prove the leader-elect is serious about change. When Mr Duncan Smith made his last plea to his Shadow Cabinet on Wednesday afternoon, I bumped into a cabinet minister who pointed out that "never in a million years" would Labour in opposition have come up with a botched policy such as Oliver Letwin's offshore isles plan for asylum-seekers.

Yesterday's decision by Kenneth Clarke, the true heir to the moderate, one nation Tory tradition, not to oppose Mr Howard was certainly welcomed with relief by many ministers.

For all the talk about Mr Howard's appeal, it was the former chancellor who really worried Labour because he would slash the wilder fringes of Tory policy. A pragmatist to his fingertips, a Clarke-led party would drop health vouchers, agree with some government targets, cap high-tax councils and dump an EU referendum drive.

Mr Clarke now joins that long and distinguished list of "The Best Prime Ministers Britain Never Had" that includes Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey and Michael Heseltine.

Yesterday, there was no disguising the disappointment of those on the left of the Conservative Party. "There's no two ways about it, this is a very bad period for Tory moderates," one said. "But we will be back precisely because we can't win a general election without politicians who genuinely come from the centre." The next few days will reveal whether Mr Howard sees such sentiments as a challenge, not a threat.