UK Politics

Is this the real Howard threat?

I have one fear about Michael Howard becoming leader of the Conservative Party.

It is not that he will transform the Tories into an election-winning force and sweep to power driving us back into the dark days of the eighties – there is surely little chance of that.

No my nagging worry is rather the impact he could have on the Blair government and Polly Toynbee touches on that fear today.

Right from his 1983 maiden speech advocating the restoration of the death penalty, he has courted cheap popularity. It was not being rightwing that worried people like Ann Widdecombe: it was his willingness to dabble in almost any unsavoury policy that looked like a winner. Europhobic, homophobic (he introduced Clause 28 and voted against gay adoptions), anti-abortion (he voted for the Alton bill to restrict it), he called for General Pinochet’s release. As for wise policy-making, he was a key minister responsible for the poll tax.

So should social democrats rejoice that someone of such well-deserved ill-repute has seized the reigns of the Tory party? No. This is exceedingly dangerous. He will poison the political water. Remember how in the dying days of the Major government he played a cat-and-mouse game with Jack Straw. He kept passing worse and worse laws to see if Jack Straw on the opposite bench would blench at each ever more extreme law and order measure. Sadly, Straw shadowed him pace for pace, supporting all he did for fear of Labour looking soft in the run-up to the election.

Is Labour braver now? Perhaps, but not much. If Howard launches a cannonade of law and order and anti-asylum policies to public approval, with loud hurrahs from the rightwing press giving whole-hearted support to a leader they relish, who trusts New Labour to stand resolute and not keep trimming rightwards? With Mandelson, the third way triangulator-in-chief, back breathing in the prime ministerial ear, the middle ground will seem to shift. This comes just as other voices in Labour are making headway pushing in a more progressive direction. The danger is that a new, if unfounded, fear of Howard will win the ideological tug-of-war for the next manifesto.