Once a reactionary, always a reactionary

Watch him as he pushes the Government into more and more punitive postures on law and order
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Horror of horrors. Can Tory MPs really be this chuffed with the choice they have just made? Are they suffering from collective Alzheimer's disease? Michael Howard was a revolting, reactionary Home Secretary, from 1993 to 1997, and he will be the same as Conservative leader, mark my words.

Way back then, I gave a speech in a prison to inmates. It was a stark, awful place. On some of the window sills, I noticed wilted plants grown in tin cans. Orders from Howard, according to two prison officers. He had visited some days previously, and was furious that the prisoners had grown flowers to cheer themselves up. So he put a stop to this little human and humanising activity.

I also watched him publicly humiliate Sir Herman Ouseley, then the Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, which had called for a stronger Race Relations Act - now, thanks to New Labour, in place. At a conference, Howard was asked for his response. He was arrogant, contemptuous of Ouseley, uninterested in the document and didn't even try to pretend that the Tories took race equality seriously.

Oliver Letwin, Michael Portillo, Theresa May and Kenneth Clarke, who have given years of unrewarding service trying to drag the Tory party towards modernity, must surely know that the person about to be crowned their king is an unrepentant, voter-repellent right winger. So what are they playing at?

They must think voters are halfwits. Howard wears slightly more fashionable spectacles and Widdecombe puts on a girly Alice band; they cheerfully say the past is over and we are expected to rush to them with hope. (Portillo is at least astute enough to understand that his incredible makeover may have got him lucrative offers from the BBC, but that most Britons still haven't forgotten he was once an unfeeling Thatcherite zealot.) The party faithful, last week so enraged at the behaviour of their MPs, are today as compliant as much of the media.

At various functions I attended last week, nobody was mentioning Derek Lewis, the prison chief unfairly sacked by Howard, who described the Home Secretary as a man "with the menace of Uriah Heep and the sincerity of Bob Monkhouse". This is why we all rose to applaud Jeremy Paxman when he asked Howard the same question 14 times to get him to tell the truth about the Derek Lewis scandal.

Mr Howard will play the demagogue, but with precision and finesse. Watch him as he pushes New Labour into more and more punitive postures on law and order, as he savages good policies that advance equality and fight discrimination, as he trips up the progress slowly being achieved on legalising some forms of immigration, as he cruelly and knowingly further demonises asylum-seekers, the most voiceless people in our country. Like many of my black, Asian, Muslim and Jewish friends, I think that it is unforgivable when the children of refugees reduce the human rights of other refugees. Howard did this before and will again, given a chance. But then I feel the same about treacherous Ugandan Asians who have joined the clamour to keep out asylum-seekers.

Under Blunkett, although he can be illiberal and populist himself, we are getting some genuinely good developments - a new culture of citizenship, talk of green cards for migrant workers and, brilliantly, a new Equalities and Human Rights Commission to protect the rights of all Britons, white and black, who are victims of discrimination. All these and more are under peril as the new Opposition leader sweeps in.

What will make it worse is that any criticism of the new Tory leader will be condemned as anti-Semitic. Edward Heathcoat Amory has already been branded an anti-Semite by Vanessa Feltz for writing that Howard is seen as a "proper English gentleman". Paxman the same because he does not show Howard enough respect. I too will get some slaps from those who weekly sniff my columns to finds words and thoughts which "prove" that I have Jew-hating DNA. There is now a whole industry engaged in this new McCarthyism. No matter. Michael Howard is one of the worst leaders the Tories could have elected, and nothing is going to make me flinch from saying this.

The good news is that a recent poll showed that 26 per cent of voters are even less likely to vote for the Tories under Howard than under IDS. So far, the people aren't convinced that the man who emerged so smoothly out of the dark is the Prime Minister they want for the 21st century. Long live their cynicism.