Mr Howard's most urgent task is to shape a convincing alternative to New Labour

Share
Related Topics

Michael Howard was looking surprisingly cheerful in his public appearances yesterday. From his interview on
Breakfast with Frost to his arrival at his Bournemouth conference hotel, the Conservative Party leader appeared determined to prove the doom-watchers wrong. Which was a brave, if not foolhardy, approach to take.

Michael Howard was looking surprisingly cheerful in his public appearances yesterday. From his interview on Breakfast with Frost to his arrival at his Bournemouth conference hotel, the Conservative Party leader appeared determined to prove the doom-watchers wrong. Which was a brave, if not foolhardy, approach to take.

For even by its own recent dismal standards, the Conservative Party has not been doing well. Mr Howard's elevation to the leadership may have livened up Prime Minister's Questions, but it has not livened up the party or significantly improved its electoral showing. The party's fourth place in last week's Hartlepool by-election was its worst performance for years. Even friendly pundits are now asking whether the party has any sort of a future in the 21st century. And when the Prime Minister said in his conference speech last week that his government was "lucky in our Opposition", he was not exaggerating. In terms of the lack of serious competition in Parliament, Mr Blair has been very fortunate indeed.

The central question this week is what Mr Howard can do to revive his party's prospects. The UK Independence Party is a threat that Mr Howard will have to confront head on. As Hartlepool showed, UKIP is taking most of its votes from the Tories, but this may be less because it is anti-Europe than because it is seen as putting British interests first and offering a single, nationalistic idea with verve and style. Mr Howard has a chance of overcoming UKIP, not by lurching to the right, but by showing that UKIP's single-issue obsession is not a desirable or viable platform for a serious party.

Mr Howard will also have to address the vexed question of the Iraq war and his party's support for it. If only, some must lament, the party had listened to the likes of Kenneth Clarke and Lord Hurd and opposed the war - where would it be now in the polls? It is too late for regret, but Mr Howard could do worse than borrow a point or two from John Kerry's US debate stance last week if he wants to support the principle of the war, while denouncing the outcome.

The greatest problem for the Tories, though, is the extent to which Mr Blair's New Labour project has occupied the broad centre and some traditionally centre-right ground (law and order, immigration) as well. It was noteworthy how, in his early months as leader, Mr Howard seemed intent on contesting precisely those areas where the Government was perceived to have tried and failed. He challenged Labour on school standards and hospitals, on conditions on council estates, on race relations and on law and order. This was a bold approach, but it was bungled.

Proposals for school and health vouchers, dubbed "passports", were poorly presented. Such policies, if properly thought out, however, could still have mileage. So could Tory considerations on law and order and immigration, but only if Mr Howard can resist the temptation to attack from the perspective of the crude, xenophobic right. As shadow Home Secretary, Oliver Letwin showed how to score points against David Blunkett with arguments that rested on a strict interpretation of the law, coupled with humanitarian considerations. Mr Howard's decision to replace Mr Letwin with David Davis and, recently, to bring John Redwood into the Shadow Cabinet smacked of nostalgia, not a quest for more modern policies.

Taxation and pensions are also areas where the Tories could appeal to old and new constituencies, including those sections of the middle classes disillusioned with New Labour. They resent the erosion of their pensions, have borne the brunt of "stealth" taxes, and are looking for someone to represent their interests.

The single most disappointing aspect of Mr Howard's leadership to date has not been his party's failure at the ballot box so much as his failure to shape the party into a convincing alternative government. It is in the interests of everyone in this country, the Prime Minister included, for there to be a thriving Opposition. It is still sorely missed.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: Hang on – that’s not how it’s supposed to be written

Guy Keleny
Rafael Nadal is down and out, beaten by Dustin Brown at Wimbledon – but an era is not thereby ended  

Sad as it is, Rafael Nadal's decline does not mark the end of tennis's golden era

Tom Peck
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test