Opinion: Howard makes another Boris blunder

Crikey old chap, not another PR disaster for the Tories? When I wrote about Michael Howard's disastrous decision to force Boris Johnson to apologise in person to the people of Liverpool, I never realised just how badly it would backfire.

No one really wants to admit it, but what The Spectator printed has remarkable support. I was astonished at the number of emails and texts that Radio 5 Live received in support of the Johnson view. Even more worrying for Howard is the number of people who think his decision to sack the best-known Tory, after the leader himself, was bonkers.

You may not like Johnson's politics but you have to admit that he reaches out to people who would normally have nothing to do with politics, particularly the Tories. Johnson is good for the Tories and has established a loyal following well away from Westminster. You know when someone has reached cult status - they become part of a football chant. Okay, so Liverpool FC supporters won't chant his name, but opposing fans have recently been singing 'There's only one Boris Johnson' and 'Boris Johnson is our friend - he hates scousers'. If sending Johnson to Liverpool was a PR disaster then sacking him was even worse.

Howard can bleat as much as he likes about the decision to sack his arts spokesman for 'telling porkies' but no one believes it. If the MP for Henley wasn't sacked for his alleged affair with journalist Petronella Wyatt then why did Howard ask him if the story was true in the first place?

He has no excuse for getting this one wrong. Careful consideration with his media advisers would surely have resulted in the conclusion that a sacking would only remind the electorate all about the Tories' disastrous 'back to basics' campaign that led to scandal after scandal and would have ended then PM John Major's career if anyone had found about his affair with Edwina Currie.

Even worse, Howard has opened a new political split in the party. Nicholas 'Fatty' Soames, for one, clearly thought Johnson should have stayed. But Johnson made mistakes too. Being more careful with what he told the tabloids - 'I'm not discussing my private life with you so bog off' - would have been the sensible thing to do. It may have saved his job, though maybe not his marriage - and I suspect the latter was more important to him at the time.

Johnson has enough talent to return but you can't say the same about Howard, who has shown to be wanting in a time of crisis.

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