OPINION: St Michael will need Tory turncoats to dress him

In 1997, when Michael Howard stood for the leadership of the Tory party, his campaign was about as successful as that of blue coke.

Howard finished last, just about mustering double figures. The Daily Telegraph said at the time that he gave 'the appearance of being smug, oily and a bit of a bully'. Now, according to the Tory paper, Howard 'has the brains and edginess to drag the Conservatives into the 21st century.' All this tells us is that the Tories are in a desperate mess.

The unopposed 'coronation' of Howard has taken all the political pundits by surprise, but the fact that the former home secretary has been elected without a ballot is reported as a real coup for the Conservatives, because they have avoided a damaging internal election. I'm not so sure. An election would have given Howard the chance to convince us that he really has changed.

When Tony Blair stood as leader of the Labour Party it was obvious that once Gordon Brown backed out he would win easily. Blair would indeed have been elected unopposed if he had not got some of his supporters to nominate John Prescott, who otherwise wouldn't have had enough MPs backing him.

Labour MPs knew Blair would win and, like the Tories today, want to be backing the winner. Blair wanted a contest to get his views across, and if Howard had any sense he would too.

It will now be far easier for the Prime Minister to portray the new Leader of the Opposition as a poll-tax-supporting right winger than it would if we had had weeks of Howard flogging his new image. The idea that Blair held a 'crisis' meeting when he found out that Howard would be the new Tory leader is laughable. That's just Tory wishful thinking. Iain Duncan Smith may have been an easy target for Labour, but Howard is manna from heaven. Just as people were beginning to forget the old Tory Government, the Conservatives throw up a reminder for everyone.

Howard will have a hard job trying to convince us he has changed,but it will not be impossible. I can't agree with Ann Widdecombe, who said that his first press conference should have been held on a council estate.

Apart from the fact that people may have thrown bricks at him, it would have been derided for being such an obvious PR stunt.

Changing Howard's poor image will need to be handled subtly. William Hague never recovered from wearing that baseball hat at Notting Hill Carnival, but Howard could have dumped the Barbour coat he wore to the football match last week. If ever a piece of clothing says 'I'm an uncaring Tory toff' then that is it. Things like this may seem trivial, but look what happened to poor old Michael Foot when he supposedly wore a donkey jacket on Remembrance Sunday.

On the policy front, Howard shouldn't face too difficult a task - IDS has left behind some new, radical policies. He will have to scrap the barmy plan to dump immigrants on an offshore island, but new leaders can dump stuff quite easily. Tax-and-spend remains a problem for the Tories.

Howard was shrewd enough as Shadow Chancellor not to get himself boxed into announcing specific tax cuts, despite pressure from IDS. Now he is leader, he will be under even more pressure to be more specific, but will face the charge of wanting to cut spending on health and education.

On the PR front, Howard will bring into Central Office some of his own people, and Rachel Whetstone looks certain to join him. She currently works with Tony Blair's ex-press officer, Tim Allan, and has no doubt picked up some useful tips on political skulduggery, something Howard knows all about.

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