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Last Updated: Friday, 11 February, 2005, 16:43 GMT
Shadowing the Conservative leader
By Michael Cockerell
Documentary maker

Our filming begins behind the scenes at last autumn's Tory conference. Michael Howard is being rehearsed for his triumphal entrance onto the platform.

The conference organiser explains that a suitably upbeat Elgar fanfare will cue him. Howard is told how he should stop and wave in order to look relaxed and in control.

Michael Howard poses for a photograph in his attic
Mr Howard now accepts the public need to see his personality

The next day Howard follows his stage instructions to the letter - and the media are presented with pictures of a self-confident leader warmly received by his followers.

But I want to dig beneath the presentational gloss.

Of all the prominent politicians I have made profiles of over the years, I have found Michael Howard has allowed the least to emerge into the public domain about his personal and private life.

He tells me that until he became Tory leader he felt that a politician should be judged solely by what he did, rather than who he was.

But he says: "I now accept that if you are a candidate for prime minister people need to know what kind of person you are."

Cold feet

It is not a task he takes to with great relish and he sometimes suffers from attacks of cold feet.

When we are due to film him with his wife at his country home, he rings to find out whether it is the sort of thing I have done in my other profiles.

Once reassured, he and Sandra Howard are relaxed and welcoming.

We film as they play ping-pong together on a table in their attic. Howard says it is a game he has always enjoyed, it gives him a quick burst of exercise and he thinks his wife enjoys it as well. She says, ruefully: "I'd enjoy it bit more if I could win occasionally."

Mr Howard with wife Sandra and film-maker Michael Cockerell
Mr Howard with wife Sandra and film-maker Michael Cockerell

Before they married, Sandra Paul was a top international model - a friend of Frank Sinatra and President John F Kennedy. Unlike Cherie Blair, Sandra is prepared to give media interviews, as Howard's advisers believe she enhances his image.

"I did not expect to be involved as much as I am", Sandra told me, "but I think these days the job of party leader is a package really - and it's inevitable the media will want stories about spouses".

I ask how she reacts to dealing with the media: "Oh, terror. Terror that I'll put my foot in it - wondering how what on earth you've said might be might be construed in a way that you did not mean - and fearing that the floodgates will open up."

Since he became Tory leader, Howard has worked hard at transforming the public's perception of himself and his party.

"What we want to do is laser out the negatives", one of his advisers told me.

Hard-faced public persona

But Howard's biggest problem in seeking to sell the change to the voters is the public's folk memory of the time the Tories were last in government and his own hard-faced public persona as home secretary.

Howard's junior minister Ann Widdecombe famously claimed there was "something of the night" about him.

Howard gamely agreed to be filmed watching some of the past TV highlights of his career and commenting on them. It's a technique I have used often in my profiles and it usually produces revealing results.

Mr Howard shakes hands with film-maker Michael Cockerell
Memories of the last Tory government do not help Mr Howard

At the viewing Howard enjoyed the clips of his early days, but his face set hard when Widdecombe's attack came on the screen.

Sandra Howard seeks to laugh off the nocturnal image: "There was a time it wasn't absolutely the best thing I've ever heard said, but it's become a wonderful joke. In fact Michael sent people copies of Dracula with his own picture on the front for Christmas one year."

Over the course of our filming we sometimes felt that Michael Howard seemed unsure of the image he wants to project of himself and his party.

At times it was the new, touchy-feely Tories, at others - as with immigration and asylum - it was hard-line stuff. A kind of Dr Jekyll and Mr Howard.

As I discovered when I played ping-pong against him, Michael Howard has built up a very strong line in defence. He has deployed it against the probing of the media over his years in front-line politics.

But in the next few months Howard will need a full armoury of defensive and attacking weapons - in addition to the disarming device of charm - as he comes up against the formidable forces of the New Labour spin machine and its allies in the media.

Michael Cockerell's "No More Mr Nasty", a TV Portrait of Michael Howard, was shown on BBC Two on 12 February.

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