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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 March 2006, 08:41 GMT
First 100 days: Michael Howard

Michael Howard celebrated his first 100 days as Conservative leader by claiming he could win the next general election.

Michael Howard
Elected leader: Nov 2003
Age when elected: 64
Defeated rivals: No other contenders, elected unopposed

But unlike his predecessor, Iain Duncan Smith, senior Tories were actually starting to believe, 18 months from polling day, it could happen.

Mr Howard's transformation of the party - after the bitter in-fighting of the Duncan Smith era - had been swift and comprehensive.

Indiscipline had been replaced with a new clarity and sense of purpose and was regularly getting the better of Tony Blair at prime minister's questions.

The changes had yet to be reflected in the polls but Mr Howard had, it was generally agreed, succeeded in stamping his authority on the party in a way none of his three predecessors had managed.

He had "put the Tories back in the game", wrote Andrew Grice in The Independent, even though "his allies admit it is too early to claim he has won over the public".

'Solid lead'

The Financial Times said Mr Howard had, at least, preserved his party's status as "the principal opposition force in the country".

He simply looks like a man who can do the job
Julia Hartley-Brewer, Sunday Express

"Mr Howard has brought the Tories back into real contention with Labour, even if not with the solid lead in the opinion polls that one would expect of the opposition halfway through a government's second term."

If Mr Duncan Smith had been allowed to "soldier on" as leader, the paper added, the Tories were in danger being overtaken by the Liberal Democrats.

Julia Hartley-Brewer in The Sunday Express noted, the party was "no longer a national joke, it is once again a serious player in British politics".

Mr Howard may not be "loved" by MPs and activists, but "he simply looks like a man who can do the job", she added.

'Lot to do'

But the opinion polls stubbornly refused to register the sort of "lift-off" in support needed if it was going to win the next election - and Mr Howard knew it.

"We have made a fair amount of progress but there is a long way to go," was his realistic appraisal given to The Daily Telegraph in an interview to mark his first 100 days.

The party still had a "lot to do" to get its policies across to voters and make the "real links with the public we need", he added.

When Mr Howard took over, his main job was seen as damage limitation - cutting into Mr Blair's Commons majority, perhaps, and halting the seemingly inexorable advance of the Liberal Democrats.

But from the beginning, Mr Howard was more ambitious than that. He remained utterly focused on gaining the keys to Number 10 - and, at 62, he knew he only had one shot.

So he was in no mood for triumphalism after 100 days in the hot seat.

He knew the really hard slog of turning the party into an election-winning force was still to come.

What happened next?: The Conservatives performed better in the 2005 General Election than in 1997 and 2001, but failed to stop Tony Blair winning a third successive majority. Mr Howard resigned and his ex-policy adviser David Cameron won the subsequent seven month leadership election.


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