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Last Updated: Saturday, 6 November, 2004, 08:37 GMT
Howard's disappointing year?
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

When Michael Howard was catapulted into the job of Tory leader exactly one year ago, few believed he had any chance of leading his party to a general election victory.

Michael Howard
Michael Howard can't move opinion polls
The opposition had been through a protracted period of civil war which had seen the "mods" and "rockers" - modernisers and traditionalists - knocking chunks out of each other, usually in the full glare of the media spotlight.

They had unceremoniously dumped their previous leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was widely regarded inside the party as useless, and who his critics claimed had failed to make any impression in the polls or in the Commons.

Spirits were at an all time low with some even speculating the party may, indeed, be over.

That year's party conference in Blackpool had been entirely dominated by the leadership issue, with rival camps using it to whip up support for potential challengers to Mr Duncan Smith - whose future as leader was, accurately, being counted in days.

When Mr Howard suddenly appeared from the sidelines as the unity candidate and went on to be anointed as leader after an astonishingly well-executed and speedy coup, spirits lifted.

On the way

Mr Howard had not actively sought the leadership and had been seen by many as a Thatcherite has-been.

Yet his appointment pumped a new sense of purpose and even optimism into the party.

He even appeared to succeed in casting off his old "something of the night" image previously landed on him by ex-minister Ann Widdecombe.

Dracula, it appeared, had turned into Superman. And the Tories were on the way back.

Iain Duncan Smith
Duncan Smith was dumped
The depressing fact for the opposition, however, is that a year on, things look little better on the election front.

Indeed, despite a far more commanding and professional performance than his predecessor, Mr Howard appears to have entirely failed to shift his party's popularity off the floor.

The party claimed success in June's European, local and London assembly elections, coming first in all three contests.

But there have also been some electoral disasters - most notably in the Hartlepool by-election in the summer which saw his party pitched into fourth position behind UKIP.

New talent

Mr Howard also succeeded in taking a grip on his party machine - including moving its headquarters from the old building near the Commons, which was soaked with the blood of past conflicts.

He reshuffled his shadow cabinet in an attempt to bring on some new talent.

And he did, to begin with at least, regularly best the prime minister during Commons question time.

Yet still the opinion polls showed no sign of movement, although the party claims to be performing better in its target seats than the headline figures suggest.

Mr Howard's reshuffles, particularly the revival of John Redwood, were seen as moves to the right in the face of Tony Blair's successful bid to park his policy tanks firmly on Tory territory.

And it wasn't too long before the prime minister got the measure of him in question time.

Then there were a run of not-good-enough by-election results, culminating in the Hartlepool disaster.

And, suddenly Superman started to look merely like any other man.

Party faithful

His party conference again lifted spirits with the unfurling of some coherent policies and a pledge to win the trust of voters.

And his own speech was undoubtedly a highlight. If nothing else, Mr Howard is a class, professional act who knows just how to pitch things to his party faithful.

Michael Howard
Howard lifted spirits at conference
There was not even the hint of a leadership challenge in the air - that would be suicide at this point in the electoral cycle - although the first signs of nervousness did emerge.

Yet still the polls refused to budge and the near-euphoria of the conference rapidly evaporated.

There was a feeling of desperation as the party wondered what on earth it had to do, which hadn't already been tried, to get back into the game.

And that, just months from the next general election, is where things have largely remained.

Few Tories seriously doubt Mr Howard's abilities and few believe anyone else could have done more to revive their fortunes.

But, as he marks his first anniversary as party leader, Mr Howard will look hard for any signs that he can lead his party to victory at the next election.

What most probably believe is that he will at least slash Tony Blair's majority and build a sound foundation for the Tory revival in time for the election after that.

That might have to be enough.

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