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Tuesday, June 15, 1999 Published at 09:33 GMT 10:33 UK


UK Politics

Howard's image problem

Michael Howard: "Something of the night"

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

It was once said of Michael Howard that every time he appeared on television the Tories lost another 1,000 votes.

There was something about his Eastern Europe meets the Welsh valleys accent - which saw "people" turned into "peepill" - and his general demeanour that turned voters off.

Most memorably, his former deputy Ann Widdecombe once said he had "something of the night" about him.

And even as he announced his desire to stand down from the shadow cabinet at the next reshuffle, former colleague Michael Portillo confessed he had suffered from "an image problem".

Hague backer

There was always a lingering suspicion that the image problem had something to do with anti-Semitism.

But it did not stop him being appointed to William Hague's first shadow cabinet.

That came after Mr Hague had at first supported Mr Howard as John Major's successor and then suddenly abandoned him and stood himself. The former home secretary then became a Hague backer.

But ever since the appointment, the shadow foreign secretary has been seen as part of the old guard on the Tory frontbench.

It is now said of that group, which includes Sir Norman Fowler and Gillian Shephard, that when they get up to speak they remind voters of the Tory party they couldn't wait to kick out at the last election.

As a result there has been mounting speculation that had they not resigned Mr Hague would have eventually got rid of some, if not all, of them to replace them with fresh new faces.

So Mr Howard may well have simply jumped before he was pushed.

Ironically, he has proved to be a highly successful shadow foreign secretary, remorselessly harrying Robin Cook over his series of blunders and scandals.

Future prospects

It is partly because of Mr Howard's performance in keeping up the pressure on issues like arms-to-Africa and select committee report leaks that Mr Cook's leadership hopes have been dashed.

But it is also likely that Mr Howard has taken a clear decision about his future prospects.

His ambitions of leading the Tories have been thwarted and he knows he is not going to progress any further through the shadow cabinet.

He has probably also calculated that Tony Blair is most likely to win the next election and that by the time the next one comes around he will be hitting normal retirement age.

So after a dozen years as a Cabinet minister and with no prospect of future promotion, now must seem as good a time to go as any.



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