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

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
Queen Elizabeth II with members of the Order of Merit  

Either the Queen thinks that only one in 24 Britons are women, or her Order of Merit is appallingly backward

Janet Street-Porter
Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...