Political Hay

No More Mr. Nice Guy

By 11.3.03

His ancestry is Transylvanian and one colleague says he has "something of the night about him," but Michael Howard is not Count Dracula, no matter how much Britain's frothing tabloids may compare him to the fabled bloodsucker. Howard is a Member of Parliament and the man most likely to become the next leader of the UK's Conservative Party.

When the Tories ousted their previous leader, Iain Duncan Smith, last week it was widely expected that factional bloodletting would soon follow. But that hasn't happened. The Euroskeptics and Europhiles within the party are not at one another's throats and while Tories remain divided between the old party core of traditionalists and "inclusive" modernizers, everyone has so far united behind Howard.

This is a remarkable turnabout from the leadership squabbles that consumed the Tories in 1997 and 2001, and it's no less a remarkable comeback for Howard himself. When he ran for the leadership in 1997 he finished fifth in a field of five candidates. At the time the defeat looked like the end of him. As recently as last December he said he would never again seek to lead the Tories.

The sinister reputation that has dogged him was acquired while he served as Home Secretary in John Major's government. He had made some missteps before, such as supporting the massively unpopular Poll Tax that brought down the Thatcher government. But it's for his tenure as Home Secretary that Howard is best remembered by the British public. He was a champion of hard-line policies. "Prison works" was his motto.

Howard campaigned to create a national ID card as a means to fight illegal immigration, and he curtailed the British "right to silence" -- roughly analogous to the Fifth Amendment -- so that juries could infer guilt from a defendant's refusal to answer questions. He tried to centralize Britain's police forces under the control of his office, a move which prompted one former Home Secretary, fellow Tory Sir Willie Whitelaw, to accuse him of politicizing law enforcement.

Controversial these measures were but crime statistics fell by some 18 percent under Howard, and his policies proved popular not only with the Tory grassroots but also, surprisingly, with certain Labour ministers. The present Home Secretary under Tony Blair, David Blunkett, has resurrected Howard's idea for a national ID card, for example, as a post-September 11 counter-terrorist measure. Howard himself, in turn, has supported some of Labour's Home Office initiatives, such as a proposal to abolish the prohibition on "double jeopardy" in murder cases.

Somewhat ironically, while Howard's harsh legacy lives on in the Blair government the Tories in opposition have adopted a more civil libertarian line under Oliver Letwin as Shadow Home Secretary. And in an illustration of what strange one night stands politics can make, Letwin has become a close ally to Howard in his campaign for the Tory leadership and is expected to replace Howard as Shadow Chancellor when Howard become leader.

The ease with which the Blair government has adopted policies once associated with Howard suggests one difficulty that faces the next Conservative leader. In Blair, Howard faces an opponent who is not afraid to steal your clothes -- on internal security, foreign policy, and on anything else that strikes his fancy. The prime minister's steadfast support for President Bush and the war with Iraq, for example, has made him tremendously unpopular with members of his own party, but it has left the Tories little room to maneuver. They are not about to campaign as the anti-war party in the next election.

Howard could outflank Blair on economics, but even that will prove tricky. New Labour has tried to reconcile Thatcherism with welfarism under the banner of a "Third Way," and thereby neutralize their own explicitly socialist past. On taxes and new spending, Howard is a genuine Thatcherite. He opposed a minimum wage for the UK and fought European Union regulations that would have created a maximum 48-hour work week. He has vowed to fight for lower taxes if he becomes Tory leader. But he has also promised that he will not slash government services. Even Margaret Thatcher, who broke the unions' stranglehold on Britain and privatized many of the country's industries, could hardly touch "government services," like the National Health Service, Britain's own long-established version of Hillarycare. It is as sacrosanct as Social Security is on the other side of the pond.

And there is the nub of the Tories' troubles. The price tag of the welfare state makes it very difficult, even under the best circumstances, to be a small-c conservative. And since Blair has largely co-opted the Tories on crime and foreign policy, that leaves them to compete with Chancellor Gordon Brown over spending on government services. Even the sweetest conservative must look a little like a vampire in a Britain where compassion has long been defined as enthusiasm for government spending, and Michael Howard is far from the sweetest conservative.

But Howard has one advantage that his predecessor, the unfortunate Iain Duncan Smith, did not. When Tories have tried to project a kinder, gentler image they have usually wound up looking foolish. That was the fate of Smith: He was, as one major Tory donor said, simply too nice for the job. Howard, with his tough record as iron fisted Home Secretary, doesn't have that hang-up. Despite his considerable personal charm, no one will ever say that he's too nice to be Prime Minister.

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About the Author

Daniel McCarthy is editor of the American Conservative.