OPINION: Howard's team dons New Labour's clothes

When new Tory leader Michael Howard made an appearance on Saturday night's The Premiership, he'd abandoned his normal matchday Barbour jacket.

He didn't actually 'appear' in the true sense of the word, but his spin doctors ensured the producer knew where he was sitting so a shot of Howard appeared briefly as Spurs beat Liverpool.

I say all this because a few weeks ago I suggested a 'Barbour' was not appropriate garb for a man wanting to win votes from New Labour. It may go down well with the huntin', shootin' and fishin' brigade, but not with middle England.

Imagine my surprise when Howard blurted out on Radio Five Live, before I had the chance to ask a question: 'Charlie, I took your advice and you will notice the Barbour was gone at the game yesterday.'

How can you follow that with hard-hitting political questions? We did our best, but even when challenged over his disastrous decision to call for the sacking of Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier, Howard replied: 'That was completely stupid and I apologise.' How refreshing. A politician prepared to admit he was stupid and make a genuine apology. I hate to admit it, but I couldn't help but admire him.

Opinion on the Saatchi-inspired 'I believe' ads in The Times was divided.

Last week we had another ad, this time in The Guardian. The chaps over at the Telegraph may be furious about missing out on the action, but it's good politics to use Labour-supporting papers for this, especially in the throwaway Society section of The Guardian. The paper itself put the story on the front page, though its assessment that the ad might upset the 'Tory press' was way off the mark - they all took the story up with gusto.

Howard's new team also advised him to give his first big interview as leader to The Sun, though I doubt he needed much persuading. Again, the Tory-supporting Telegraph was incandescent with rage, but it will have to face up to the fact that it simply does not matter to Tory spin doctors.

Its readers would vote Tory if the party was led by a donkey.

All this new-found common sense at Central Office is down to new chief spin doctor Guy Black and his team. Wisely, Black accompanied the Tory leader as he toured the TV and radio studios last weekend, and he is now the man who has the ear of the Tory leader most often.

It was no coincidence that the Telegraph splash from the Breakfast with Frost interview was headlined 'Tories to scrap tuition fees policy'. The current one is not credible and Howard knows it, but he hasn't got time to sort out a new one before next week's big vote. So he's done the next best thing - scrapped the policy without having to announce it. Sounds just like New Labour spin.

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