Greasy Pole: Howard’s Beginning
Among what is politely called the cut and thrust of politics the Tory Party has always taken comfort from the notion that, when all is said and done, they have the priceless asset of loyalty as their secret weapon. Anyway that is the kind of nonsense they dish out to the grass roots party members, presumably because they alone are crazy enough to believe it. Consider, for a start, the case of Iain Duncan Smith. As it became more and more obvious that the Quiet Man of Chingford could not survive much longer in the hot seat into which those same grass roots had thrust him, he tried again and again to put off the inevitable by appeals to party loyalty. In this he was supported by the majority of MPs, including some of the more prominent in the Shadow Cabinet. At that stage only a few were ready to put their heads above the parapet. And among those most loudly protesting their unswerving loyalty to their doomed boss were Oliver Letwin – and Michael Howard.
So strongly were these two driven by the passion of their loyalty that shortly before IDS was shown the door by the parliamentary party they allowed themselves to be photographed standing in support of him outside Conservative headquarters. The question is, was anyone really impressed by this? The body language and facial composure of both men did not suggest that loyalty was in the forefront of their minds. And that was how it really was because directly IDS had been deposed Howard announced that he was ready to offer himself, with all due modesty, as a candidate for the leadership. But he did this with a speed not to be expected in someone still grieving loyally for the lost leader. At the same time Letwin was busily negotiating a deal between Howard and his only real rival – David Davis – to ensure that Howard would be the only candidate. It was, as you might say, political business as usual.
If either of these men was troubled by feelings of guilt at their double standards (and there is no evidence whatsoever that politicians are ever vulnerable to such distractions) they could have consoled themselves with the memory that in his day IDS himself was not famous for being loyal to his leader. He was, in fact, one of John Major’s “bastards” – a group of swivel-eyed Tories who plotted relentlessly against Major and his policies. In fact there is a case that when the leadership was being contested in 2001 it was the very fact that IDS had been one of the “bastards” which persuaded the grass roots to vote for him. Then there is the fact that, in the previous leadership election in 1997, Howard was outmaneuvered (a rare occurrence for him) by William Hague going back on an agreement between them not to stand. And what about the disloyalty of the parliamentary party towards the grass roots membership – all those patient, unfulfilled blockheads who stuff envelopes and organise coffee mornings but who were denied their chance to vote for a new leader? It seems clear that the underhand operations to get Howard as the only candidate were designed to avoid giving the membership a chance to elect another IDS. So much for party unity. So much for trusting the party members. So much for democratic elections. Well, we did say it was cut and thrust.
One reason the Tories were so keen on Howard was that he was about the only one with a public image; the others, like Letwin, Fox and Davis, are hardly known outside the party rubber chicken circuit. Howard was different; after all he had been a Home Secretary. Which was part of the problem because if anything he was rather too well known in an undesirable way. If he is remembered for anything it is for the cruelty with which he pursued anyone caught breaking the laws which protect capitalism’s right to legalized theft. This made him hugely popular with the grass roots in their conferences but it had the opposite effect on anyone at the sharp end of crime and the legal system. “Michael, stand and deliver” was how Jeffrey Archer (before he began his personal experience of the punishment which Howard was responsible for) introduced him at one conference. In response to which Howard brought the faithful to their feet with a rousing stimulation of their most hardened prejudices and delusions on the theme of “Prison works… I know what causes crime: criminals”. And in case there was any doubt about his opinions he chose as his minister for prisons that strange woman Anne Widdecombe, who justified his confidence in her by overseeing the shackling of women prisoners while they were giving birth.
Whatever protest was aroused by incidents like these left Howard unmoved, his oily smirk undisturbed. In the view of a fellow minister he was a Home Secretary whose policies were “largely determined by the Conservative Party Conference…may have been the worst Home Secretary in the two centuries the office has been in existence”. (Since then we have had experience of Jack Straw and David Blunkett, who have put in a strong bid for that distinction). The fact that Howard’s family came to England in 1939 as refugees from the intensifying repression of Jews in Romania did not persuade him to speak out against the anti-immigration policies of the Thatcher government; nor did it make him protest against Thatcher’s raging about the country being “swamped” by immigrants. In the 1997 Conservative leader election Campaign he said that “Tories should not believe in ‘one nation’ policies but in ‘one British nation’ policies. All of this was in the cause of helping his bid to be leader of his party, eventually Prime Minister.
Then came the New Beginning. The prospect of leading the Tories, with the golden dream of upsetting precedent and winning power at the next election, wonderfully concentrated Howard’s mind. Something drastic was needed to get rid of that unfortunate image as the slippery darling of the Tory grassroots. The first priority was to embrace the concept of renewal: “Of course we have got to change” he announced, “The world has changed, the country has changed and we have to change”. A few days later he was giving his party the bad news of what that change entailed: henceforth they “…must be a party broad in appeal and generous in outlook”. He might have put it more simply: “Trust me, elect me”. This all provoked unhappy memories of Thatcher and her reference to St Francis: “Where there is discord may we bring harmony” and John Major drooling about presenting us with “a nation at ease with itself”. History will record that Thatcher’s government did not set out to introduce us to social harmony, or any other kind of it and Major became infamous for presiding over a nation so disturbed with itself that they blamed him enough to eject him emphatically from office at the first opportunity so that his party could then eject him from the leadership.
A lot of work, some of it in unexpected quarters, is being put into recasting Howard, to persuade us to forget the memorable description of him by Anne Widdecombe – who should have known – that there was “ something of the night” about him. We are being informed that we have cruelly misjudged the poor man. We thought he was a slimy, manipulative conspirator – just the kind of person to survive in the adversarial world of barristers which he inhabited – when all along he was, as one of his admirers put it, “Warm, charming and witty”. Even worse, in the Daliy Telegraph of 1 November Anne Robinson took time out from being – well, Anne Robinson – to reassure us that when he was at Cambridge Howard was “a very fine lover” and that he has now grown up into someone who is “shy, witty and clever”.
The Labour Party are banking on the voters being resistant to this charm offensive and preferring to live with, and to vote on, their memories of the Michael Howard of old. But this may not be the wisest tactics for them. Every capitalist party has a murky past, populated by leaders whose responsibility for asserting the primacy of the ruling class has made them widely hated. If the workers had voted in the 1997 election with proper recall of the experience of previous Labour governments they would never have put Tony Blair into Number Ten. In 1979, if they had remembered what their life had been like under past Tory governments they would not have put themselves up for another dose of it. The leaders of capitalism personify the fact that it is a vicious, murderous, repressive way of organising human affairs. And capitalism relies for its continued existence on the defective memories and responses of the very people who suffer under it. There is no reason for Michael Howard not to benefit from this; we might yet see him realising his all-consuming dream of going through the front door at Downing Street.