The Week in Politics: Howard has made the running - but will positivity suit him?

Michael Brown
Saturday 03 January 2004 01:00

Happiness used to be a cigar called Hamlet but it is now being associated with a politician called Michael Howard. In the battle of the party leaders' New Year messages, the Prime Minister said his job was only half done. But Mr Howard won by publishing a political credo worthy of Martin Luther King.

"I believe it is natural for men and women to want health, wealth and happiness for their families and themselves," said Mr Howard's eye-catching advertisement. The cynics will make much of Mr Howard's dreams but he should be commended for trying to re-state that politicians should not merely have ambitions for themselves but for the people they aspire to represent.

It is hard to imagine that Tony Blair or Charles Kennedy would disagree with many of Mr Howard's beliefs, such as "people must have every opportunity to fulfil their potential" or"it is the duty of every politician to serve the people by removing the obstacles in the way of ambitions".

Indeed, a chirpy John Prescott, standing in yesterday for Tony Blair, who is on a winter break, declared that he, too, was in favour of happiness - although it would be good if he would show it a bit more often.

What makes Mr Howard's public declaration of his personal philosophy interesting is that there is a serious attempt to cut the knocking copy that has normally characterised Tory advertising. The Tory leader previously had a reputation - possibly undeserved - for a combative approach to politics. The "demon eyes" campaign in 1997 against Tony Blair was controversial and thought to go beyond the bounds of decency. But negative campaigning had played its part in securing the Tories victory at the 1979 and 1992 general elections. "Labour isn't working" and "Labour's Tax Bombshell" were highly effective - both ironically the brainchild of Maurice Saatchi, who is credited with the latest approach.

But Mr Howard has to be congratulated for attempting to remove the cynicism which attaches to politics and which has contributed to declining turnouts at elections. He is also attempting, with some success, to remove the "nasty" tag from the Conservative Party.

Mr Prescott dismissed the advert by suggesting that Labour will deal with Mr Howard by focusing on his past record as a Tory minister. Somehow, I don't think that is going to work. Mr Howard has already expunged his past by rising from the political dead.

Indeed, sources close to him could not believe their luck when Ian McCartney, the Labour Party chairman, dismissed Mr Howard as being stuck in a "failed Tory past". In fact, Mr Howard's greatest achievement so far seems to be that he has broken with the past - on issues such as Clause 28 and the Civil Partnerships Bill - at breakneck speed. So when he states, "I believe in equality of opportunity. Injustice makes us angry," there are no longer the belly laughs there might once have been. Mr Howard was written off in 1997, and he retired to the back benches in 1999. But he had already laid to rest the "something of the night" image during his time as shadow Chancellor. I first used the phrase "something of the daylight about him" as long ago as October 2001. The dilemma posed by this more positive approach is that it will be contrasted sharply with the combative Commons Question Time appearances against the Prime Minister. Mr Howard shines on these occasions because he scores his marks on the basis of aggression and negativity. Indeed, as January looks like being a cruel month for the Prime Minister, with Lord Hutton due to report shortly and a battle to secure the second reading for university tuition fees, Mr Howard is already gearing up for a serious Opposition assault. It is inevitable that parliamentary discourse on these issues will be furious, with the Opposition accentuating the negative streak of political debate. But it could be precisely in anticipation of these events that Mr Howard has decided that it is important for him to establish that he is more than a one-dimensional performer.

The cynics will wonder why none of Mr Howard's beliefs, rooted as they are in his experiences as a Beatle-loving student of the 1960s, visiting America's Deep South at the time of Kennedy's assassination, were never apparent during his years in a Tory government. The truth is he has never easily worn his heart on his sleeve.

Of course, a politician's credo needs to be matched by deeds. Whether the Conservative education, health and economic policy will actually deliver "health, wealth and happiness" remains to be seen. Is "I do not believe that one person's poverty is caused by another's wealth" telling us anything about Tory tax cuts? And does "I do not believe that one person's sickness is made worse by another's health" telling us anything about the role of private medicine in Tory health policies? Whatever the answers, Mr Howard has already made the political weather this year, ahead of his opponents - and that is in just 48 hours.

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