Mr Howard's unhappy anniversary

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The Independent Online

As the Tories look back on a year of Michael Howard's leadership, it is painfully clear that they have failed to make the breakthrough with the public that is required if they are to regain power. All the indications are that next year's expected general election will see the Conservatives rejected by the voters once again. Even more depressing for the Tories is that the Liberal Democrats and UKIP have made rapid gains. There is a strong case for arguing that the Tories are, in fact, going backwards.

Some have suggested that the Tories should study George Bush's victory and take heart from the resurgence of conservatism across the Atlantic. But these are siren voices. Relations between the Tories and the Republicans are at an all-time low. The idea that there will be a pooling of expertise between the two parties is a fantasy. And popular attitudes to the conflict in Iraq are far more hostile in Britain than America. There is nothing for the Tories to gain by identifying themselves with George Bush.

The very worst lesson the Tories could draw, however, is that their salvation lies in adopting the sort of moralising rhetoric that evidently appealed so much to America's evangelical right. There is no appetite for that sort of reactionary religiosity in secularised Britain. Perhaps the only thing the US election demonstrates as far as British politics is concerned is that the Tories need a coherent message and an inspiring candidate. But they knew that already.

Mr Howard has united the Tories and forged them into a professional outfit once again. But for all his success in the House of Commons, the "big message" that can persuade voters to switch their allegiance still eludes him. Instead, the Tories have slumped back into their old malevolent positions on crime, immigration and Europe. By allowing this to happen, Mr Howard has betrayed his early promises that today's Tory party is "different".

Mr Howard's failure can be partly explained by a lack of boldness. Attempts to present the Tories as the party of tax cuts, or of radical reform of the public services, have been half-hearted and ill-thought through, while they have been consistently outmanoeuvred by the Government. It is hard to see Mr Howard's first year as leader as a success. Unless things improve, and rapidly, he is unlikely to be in position to celebrate his second anniversary.