Michael Howard is balding, bespectacled leader of the Conservative Party, the second largest political party in the United Kingdom. Howard is often described as a political heavy-weight, and his debating skills are legendary. Although some of his policies have lead him to be described as the most disliked man in Britain, and even members of his own party have condemned his policies as extreme! However, after the disastrous leadership of Iain Duncan Smith, Howard’s strength and experience may be what the party needs to avoid being cast into obscurity, whether he has something of the night about him or not.
Michael Howard was born on July 7th 1941 in Gorseinon, Wales to Jewish, Romanian Immigrants; Hilda Kershion and Bernat Hecht, (Bernat changed his name to Bernard Howard in early 1941). Howard was brought up as a liberal Jew, and attends a Synagogue on high Jewish Holidays.
Attending Llanelli Grammar School, he developed an obsession for football, something that was unusual in this Rugby Union focal point. In fact, whilst attending the school’s sixth form, Howard requested that the boys be allowed to play the sport instead of the more traditional rugger. He continues to be a supporter of Liverpool Football Club today; it is unclear what the club thinks about this.
Howard left school for Cambridge University, studying Economics before switching to Law. It was here that he became associated with what would later be known as the Cambridge Mafia, an influential group of soon-to-be politicians that would hold major official positions under Margaret Thatcher and John Major. In 1962 he was elected as president of the Cambridge Union, an internal student debating society that has counted some of the most influential people in English history amongst it’s membership.
After graduating from the University with an LLB qualification in law, Howard took a gap year in the USA. Whilst across the pond, Howard developed a passion for Baseball; to this day he is a fan of the Boston Red Sox. When he returned to the UK in 1964 Howard was called to the bar. According to one source (the BBC) Howard stood as conservative candidate for Liverpool Edge Hill in 1966 and 1972, but another source (also the BBC, but a little later) claims that he stood in 1970. Both sources do, however, agree that he lost. For the next ten years Howard concentrated on his legal career, rising to the position of QC in 1982.
Howard met his wife, a former model named Sandra who had been married twice before, at a Red Cross ball. The courtship began when she revealed to him that she had not read F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, one of Howard’s favourite books. He promised to send her a copy and did so the next day. The Howards now have a son, daughter and a stepson. They also have two cats, named Martha and Prudence after the Beatles' songs.
MP Under Thatcher (1983-1990)
In 1983 the Tories, under Margaret Thatcher, won a landslide election. One of the many new Conservative MPs was Michael Howard who had won the constituency of Folkestone and Hythe. Howard, it seems, took to politics like a duck to water, in 1984 he was appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Solicitor General and in 1985 was made a junior minister at the Department of Trade and Industry where he took the office of Under Secretary of State with responsibility for corporate and consumer affairs.
Re-elected in 1987, Howard moved into the Department of the Environment becoming first Minister of State for Local Government and later: Minister of State for Water and Planning. In 1988, Howard brought in the controversial clause 28, a new British law that prohibits the promotion of a homosexual lifestyle in schools and education. In the same year he also voted with David Alton in favour of a bill that would limit access to abortion.
The Major Years (1990-1997)
In 1990, following Thatcher’s downfall and ousting, John Major
was installed as leader of the Conservative party. That year also saw Michael
enter the cabinet as employment and environment minister.
June 1991 saw Howard argue passionately that Labour’s minimum wage would lead to the loss of up to two million jobs, it also saw him fight to stop the EU bill for mandatory maternity leave for mothers and a forty eight hour working week, feeling that it would lead to irredeemable economic losses as businesses would find themselves short staffed. Unfortunately, these actions, along with his radically anti-union approach saw his unpopularity amongst the general public grow, and in November of that year, even hard-line Tory trade unionists warned that his plans to introduce laws that would require workers to give their written consent every twelve months and when subscriptions went up or face their subscription not being paid by a check-off were dangerously rightwing. His popularity amongst the moderates and leftwing in Britain dropped still further, when in December that year he threatened to resign unless John Major opted the United kingdom out of the Maastricht Treaty.
The 1992 general elections shock result saw John Major lead the Tory party to yet another victory. Howard was appointed Secretary of State for the Environment and Employment, where his most prominent act was to allow power stations to keep their pollution levels secret, claiming that to do otherwise would lead to unnecessary bureaucracy. Of course, this did nothing to help his popularity amongst moderates and environmentalists. He also campaigned against proposals to subsidise the 31 coal mines to keep the industry going. Also, in an attempt to cut costs, Howard abandoned plans to register, clear and clean up 100,000 contaminated sites.
On the twenty-seventh of May, 1993, Howard was promoted to the position of Home Secretary, the position that, until 2003, it was thought he would be remembered for. It was on the 22nd of August that he launched his new, tough, penal reforms, giving his famous speech in which he asserted “prison works!” Under his new schemes, more convicts would be sent to prison, and for longer terms. This lead to a warning in November 1993, when the Prisons Chief, Derrick Lewis warned him of potentially dangerous overcrowding in prisons.
1994 was not a good year for Howard. He began it by attempting to centralise the police force by bringing its control under Home Office appointees instead of elected representatives of the local area. In a commons vote in March that year, Howard alienated a large percentage of the population by voting against homosexual rights bill which would have lowered the age of consent to 16. But the trouble really started in September, when Semtex was found in Whitemoor prison, just after an IRA breakout. This would not have been as damaging, were it not for the fact that Howard had previously dismissed warnings that there were problems in the prisons. Things went from bad to worse in October when he was accused by the Appeal Court for abuse of power when he refused to increase criminal injuries compensation. This was followed the next month when the high court condemned his significantly secretive Home Office, this lead to him being forced to release the files on the victims of miscarriage of justice who’s appeals he had refused. Finally in December, the High Court ruled that his decision to in a murder case to imprison two students for twenty five years was fatally flawed.
Throughout the year, Howard faced huge opposition to his Criminal Justice and public order act, described as one of the most oppressive pieces of legislation seen this century, the act would remove the right to silence, something that the former Conservative Home Secretary Sir Willie Whitelaw said would “politicise the police to an unacceptable degree!” The other effects of the act were to increase the amount of time a suspect could be detained and to increase police powers of search. Howard also sought to recover fines by reducing Income Support.
1995 was not much better as early as the second of January, prisoners in Everthorpe Jail on Humberside rioted, and the next day three prisoners from Parkhust Jail, a top security prison, escape, this was enhanced by a second night of Humberside rioting. The fourth of January saw calls or him to resign as Home Secretary. He refused. April saw the Law Lords ruling that his plans to cut criminal injuries compensation were unlawful and an abuse of Parliaments power. Attempting to increase his popularity amongst the Tory Faithful and other rightwing groups, Howard attempted to cut one hundred million “wasted” pounds from health, housing and education for asylum seekers. September saw Howard’s conviction of “flouting the European Convention on Human Rights” when he unlawfully delayed the release of five IRA prisoners, become his seventh Illegal act in two years.
October 1995 saw Howard sack Derek Lewis, the Prisons Chief when he decided that the conditions in prisons were intolerable. This lead to him being named a scapegoat, and saw his popularity take another blow.
1996 was yet another bad year for Howard, who, amidst yet more allegations of scapegoat, had Sir Stephen Tumin sacked as Chief Prisons Inspector for being too liberal. In April Howard stepped in to block proposals by Labour MP, Janet Anderson, to instigate an anti-stalking bill, causing some MPs to claim that he is only interested in doing the opposite of what the people want.
In Opposition under Hague and Duncan-Smith (1997-2003)
May 1997 saw Labour win its first election for eighteen years, and it was a landslide. The day after his defeat, Major stepped down as leader and a leadership contest began. Howard put his name down as a potential candidate, attempting to play on the eighteen percent drop in crime he had overseen, but it is widely believed that he never had a chance of becoming leader due to his abysmally low popularity. As if that wasn’t enough, the hereto unknown Tory MP, Anne Widdecombe described Howard as having “something of the night about him.”
Before Howard could really begin to recover his reputation, he was asked to do and interview on the BBC2 late night news program, Newsnight with the reporter and presenter Jeremy Paxman. To Howard’s dismay, Paxman asked whether Howard threatened to overrule Derek Lewis in 1995 over the Everthorpe riots and Fred West’s suicide. Howard avoided the question by stating that he was comfortable in his decision to dismiss Lewis. Unfortunately, there was a problem, and, to make up time, Paxman was forced to ask again, this time pressing for a more direct answer. Still Howard avoided the question. Paxman, apologising for being rude, asks for a direct, yes or no answer to the question “did you threaten to overrule him?” but to no avail. In all, Paxman asked Howard the same question, fourteen times in a row, never getting an answer, thus securing his place in the history books and blooper reels.
The results of the first round of the leadership election came in on the tenth of June. Howard had come in last place. Sensibly, he decided to drop out, and on June the 19th William Hague, a Euro-Sceptic, centre-right politician became leader. Under Hague, Howard initially took up the position of Shadow Foreign Secretary.
For the next two years, Howard was a fairly quiet figure, preferring to work in his constituency rather than attack the New Labour cabinet. However he did surface in 1998 calling for a surprise attack on Iraq, to remove Saddam Hussein from office and later the same month called for General Pinochet to be released and sent back to Chile. In 1999 the Tories felt that they needed fresh blood on the front bench and so Howard announced that he was retiring from the Shadow Cabinet.
After Labour won a second landslide victory in 2001, William Hague stepped down from the leadership. In the leadership battle that followed, the outsider, Iain Duncan-Smith, one of the rebels who had ousted Thatcher, was elected to the position of Leader of her Majesty’s Opposition. Under Duncan-Smith’s re-shuffle of the Shadow Cabinet, Howard was invited to take up the position of Shadow Chancellor, opposing Gordon Brown.
2002 was a quiet year for Michael Howard, only raising his head to compliment Gordon Brown’s decision to give the Bank of England independence and to criticise the government’s handling of Asylum seekers, but wrongly declaring that one thousand had been found in Dover in twelve days, forcing him to retract his statement. It is also interesting to note that it was in November of that year that in an interview he gave to the BBC, Howard said: “I will never stand again for the leadership of the Conservative Party” and when asked if he was ruling himself out completely, no matter what the circumstances, he replied, “that’s right.”
In 2003, Howard was a stalwart supporter of the Iraq War, claiming that it should have been fought much sooner. But it was in October 2003 that the spotlight really began once again to fall on him.
Succession (October 2003)
October 2003 was the month of the party conferences. With the Prime minister, Tony Blair, successfully delivering a speech in which he appeared to prove that he was still in charge, the Tory leader, Iain Duncan Smith was under a lot of pressure to perform. Although his speech received seventeen standing ovations, and he did outline some new policies, all the press wanted to do was talk about his leadership. Many newspapers were already jumping to the conclusion that there would be a leadership election before too long and were printing lists of potential candidates for position. They predictably named Ken Clarke and Michael Portillo as candidates, in spite of the fact that neither of them had even hinted that they might stand again. Then came a surprise, despite his having conclusively stated that he would never stand again, the papers began including Howard as a potential candidate.
Throughout the leadership crisis, Howard vehemently defended Mr. Duncan Smith claiming to be fully supportive of his views, however, in the Houses of Parliament, rumours were flying, suggesting that Howard had had his eye on the leadership ever since it became clear that Duncan Smith was losing his grip, that he had always disagreed with Duncan-Smith’s economic policy, even that there were back room deals going on to ensure that should there be a leadership election, Howard would be the front runner.
As October progressed, it became more and more clear that Duncan Smith’s days were numbered and it became just as clear that Howard would stand as leader should a vote be called. But despite the speculation Howard continued to stand by Duncan Smith, refusing to answer reporters questions of who he thought the leadership would go to, and brushing off any reference to his 2002 statement.
Then, on the 29th of October, Iain Duncan Smith lost a vote of confidence amongst Tory MPs. Only now did Howard throw his hat into the ring. Press speculation mounted as one by one, other front-runners declared that whilst no-one else decided to run, neither would they. As the November 6th, the date that Howard would become leader should there be no opposition approached, only Ken Clarke remained silent. A few days passed and finally Clarke declared he would not be running. Now all that stood in Michael's way was a maverick Tory MP deciding to run, this didn’t happen and on the 6th of November 2003, Michael Howard became the Conservative leader.
The Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition (2003-2005)
Howard launched his new career as Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition with gusto. In his fist speech in the commons he attacked Tony Blair’s policies on asylum, on crime, on education and on the health service. He called Mr Blair a hypocrite and continually reminded the Premier that his popularity was slipping. In a dramatic move he raised a dossier in the air with “Tony Blair” written on it and declared that it didn’t need “sexing up!” Blair responded by reminding Mr. Howard of the state the country was in under the Tories, citing the fact that now, under Labour, unemployment was at it’s lowest since the seventies and that crime had in fact fallen in “key areas.” He also reminded Mr. Howard of the state the prisons were in when he was Home Secretary. Howard for his part delivered his speech with the manner of a man finally pleased with his job and really enjoying himself, and, unlike with Iain Duncan Smith, he had the party behind him. He was cheered as he left the hall.
Throughout November, Howard spent his time taking the reins of his party and re-organising it as he saw fit. His reshuffle of the Shadow Cabinet dramatically halved the body, reducing it from twenty members to just twelve, with some members shadowing more than one Cabinet Minister. One controversial example of this is the merging of the Health and Education shadow-ministries into one body under one MP (Tim Yeo). Interestingly, Howard also decided to appoint both Liam Fox and Lord Saatchi to the position of Joint Chairman, replacing the predictably demoted Theresa May, who now runs the Transport and Environment department. Howard also looks to the advice of former leaders and leading figures, appointing Kenneth Clarke, Iain Duncan Smith, John Major and William Hague to a panel of advisors that the BBC describes as “a Council of Elders that will also speak from time to time on the front bench. Howard had offered fellow heavyweight, Michael Portillo a place on the Shadow Cabinet, but Portillo declined, and, ultimately, announced his retirement from parliament.
The end of November brought with it the Queen’s Speech. One of the policies outlined by the Queen related to the proposal to put the children of illegal immigrants into foster-homes when their parents could no longer afford to bring them up since they would no longer be receiving benefit from the state. Howard shocked the press and Labour by accusing Mr. Blair of being illiberal, and, despite the cries of “hypocrite” stood firm by his belief.
In a televised response to the Queen’s Speech, Howard outlined his new vision for the Conservative Party. He hopes that the Tories are now a political force to be reckoned with, an alternative to Labour that hadn’t existed for nearly eight years. He promised tax-cuts, but higher-spending in key-areas, even proposing a new bank-holiday that would occur at different times each year depending on how high or low tax was. Over the days that followed, Howard declared that he could reform the health and education services by intelligent spending, this was a move condemned by many as impossible, one Labour minister stating that “Howard’s policies will leave a huge financial gap which will have to be paid for by painful cuts.” Howard’s most recent act the time of writing has been a display of contempt for “Labour’s spin-society.” In Friday 10th December’s Daily Telegraph Howard apologised for the Poll Tax, calling it a “brave experiment” that he is sorry “caused so many problems.”
For the next year things appeared to go reasonably well for Howard. The Conservative Party rallied behind him, some new policies came out and for the first time since 1997 the Tories actually looked as if they could run the country. Or so they thought. The problem was, the polls just didn't move. It seemed that whilst Iain Duncan Smith had been horrendously unpopular within the party, to the rest of the country, he was not the problem! Still, at the dispatch box, Howard was an impressive match for Blair and Prime Minister's Question Time, so dull under the previous Conservative leader, once again became something worth watching.
There were relatively few interesting political developments in this time. Fox Hunting briefly rose to the surface, but to city-dwellers it was something of a non-issue. Questions arose about Howard's stance on the Iraq war – he had voted in favour, but this was no longer a good thing in the eyes of the electorate. He attempted to say that whilst he would have still gone to war had he known what Tony Blair had known, he would have done it better. This was not what the public wanted to hear, but it seemed to please the Tory faithful, and so within the party, Howard's status rose.
Over 2004, Howard attempted to pursue honesty in the party, stating that if anyone broke their promises, they would be out. Late in the year an unknown journalist made some rather unfortunate comments in the Spectator about the people of Liverpool in relation to a British hostage in Iraq. The Spectator was edited by Boris Johnson, a well-known eccentric and Conservative frontbencher. Spying the opportunity to show how tough he could be, Howard relieved Johnson of his front-bench position and made him apologise to Liverpool. The attention of the country then turned to David Blunkett's slightly confusing affairs and family, leaving Howard in a reasonably good light. The polls still refused to move.
2005 dawned and with it came the promise of some electioneering in anticipation of a vote in May. Howard became truly vicious in the commons, insulting Blair at any opportunity whilst voicing his party's new proposals. In early March, the case of sixty-nine year old Margaret Dixon was brought to his attention. Margaret had had her operation cancelled seven times, an anomaly certainly, but what better way for Howard to illustrate what he saw as Labour's failings? He pounced on it and for the next week the NHS was the hot topic of the press. Unfortunately for him, Howard had miscalculated, far from rallying to his side, the British people didn't move. Public opinion, voiced on the BBC's website appeared to indicate that most people did not like their National Health Service being slandered, and whilst Howard didn't haemorrhage any more voters, the strategy proved to be something of a dud.
A small disaster struck on March 25 when the prominent Conservative minister in the shadow cabinet, Howard Flight, was caught on tape telling fellow Thatcherites that proposed Conservative spending cuts were "only the beginning." With the BBC and Channel 4 suggesting the Tories had been caught with their pants down, Howard, in an attempt to make good on his earlier promise of honesty, sacked and de-selected Flight. However, the former shadow-minister refused to go quietly, saying that he would be the Conservative candidate for Arundel and South Downs whether the leader liked it or not. Initially he even had the support of his local party, however they soon dropped the issue and Flight in the end decided not to stand. Still some damage had been done, it was suddenly far harder for Howard to maintain the honesty rhetoric.
On April 5, a general election was called, the details of the campaign can be found in the node, but Howard fought an energetic campaign, but according to the polls Labour was still far ahead. There was nothing that could be done; it seemed, to sway the public mood. Near the end, however, there was a leak from the government of the Attorney General's advice regarding the legality of the war in Iraq. It looked suspiciously as if he might have thought it illegal. Howard immediately seized on the revelations, telling the country that Blair had lied to them. It seemed to work, the polls, that all month had been roughly the same, suddenly dipped in Howard's favour. Still, Labour had a three or four point lead.
Election night came, and as the exit poll was announced, it was clear that the Conservatives had lost. The night rolled on, seat after seat came in for Labour and the trickle of Tory constituencies never quite turned into the hoped-for torrent. Howard won his seat for the sixth time mere minutes before Labour crossed the 324 boundary and became the party of majority in the House of Commons. In his speech, however, Howard appeared jubilant – the polls were still showing an increase in Conservative seats and he could hope for perhaps another forty MPs under him. He thanked his campaign team and the party and congratulated Tony Blair on his third term, stating that if he listened to the people and delivered on the issues that matter, he would have Howard's full support.
The following afternoon however, precisely eighteen months after Howard became Conservative leader, the story was slightly different. In a seven-minute speech given in Putney, one of the Conservative gains, he praised the successful new candidates and commiserated his party. He congratulated Blair again, giving the same speech he had before, but with one difference. Where before he had said Blair would have his full support, he how said that support would come from the Conservative party. A slightly uncomfortable rumble went around the crowd. Howard went on. Within the next few sentences he resigned as the Leader of the Conservative Party, saying
"I've said many times since I became leader and during this election campaign that accountability matters. I've said that if people don't deliver then they go. And for me delivering meant winning the election. I didn't do that. I didn't do that despite my best efforts."
For the moment then, Michael Howard is just a caretaker leader, managing his party until they choose the person to replace him. He has had a varied career, and had he been younger, may have succeeded in becoming the next Conservative Prime Minister. He may have been responsible for bringing his party back from the brink, or he may have been its last successful leader. In any case whether liked or loathed he is still one of the most formidable figures in British politics.