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: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Developer - London - £45k

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Application Support & Development ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Isis in Iraq: Even if Iraqi troops take back Saddam’s city of Tikrit they will face bombs and booby traps

Patrick Cockburn
The Royal Mint Engraver Jody Clark with his new coinage portrait, alongside the four previous incarnations  

Queen's new coin portrait: Second-rate sculpture makes her look characterless

Michael Glover
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003