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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 April 2005, 11:29 GMT 12:29 UK
Profile: Michael Howard
By Bob Chaundy
BBC News Profiles Unit

Close-up Michael Howard
Michael Howard never expected to become Tory leader
Michael Howard had been something of a late starter in politics.

Unlike his Conservative friends from his Cambridge University days, namely Ken Clarke, Leon Brittan, John Gummer and Norman Lamont, he'd found it difficult to secure a parliamentary seat.

Three reasons were given - that his smooth lawyer image held him back, that he was Jewish and that he was a bachelor.

Nevertheless, after he entered the House in 1983, he rose quickly and made his name in the last Thatcher government and, most memorably, as Home Secretary under John Major.

But his success had left him with an image problem which his opponents were not slow to capitalise on.

Dumped

It was Michael Howard who had introduced the unpopular poll tax, and who had gained a reputation for tough policies on law and order, several of which were found to be illegal by the European courts.

It was after a spat with his Head of Prisons that Anne Widdecombe declared that Michael Howard had "something of the night" about him.

His party was dumped by the electorate in 1997. When he stood for the Tory leadership that year, Michael Howard came last. Yet within seven years, he had been elected leader, at the age of 62.

It was some resurrection.

Michael Howard on a police raid
Michael Howard has always held tough views on law and order
By now, the Conservatives had seen Labour usurp much of their natural constituency, that of middle-aged, middle-class, middle England.

His mission has been to try to re-brand the Conservative image, to widen its appeal. He wants to portray his party as modern, socially inclusive and caring.

Under the guidance of Tory spinmeister, Lynton Crosby, imported from Australia where he steered another Mr Howard to four consecutive election victories, the party has gone on the attack, forcing Labour on to the back foot.

Michael Howard has focused on populist causes, highlighting examples such as Margaret Dixon and her cancelled operations, and Maria Hutchings and the lack of specialist education for her autistic son.

Family man image

He forced the issue on the terrorism bill and announced he will impose a quota on asylum-seekers if elected prime minister.

Mr Howard's own parents were immigrants from Romania who went on to run a clothes shop in Llanelli. Being the lone Tory in a Labour stronghold was early evidence of the confidence and thick skin required of a successful politician.

In order to improve his personal image, Michael Howard has given a higher profile to his family.

Parading his family at the Tory spring conference
His family has taken a higher profile
His wife of 30 years, Sandra, a former model, is to play an active part in the election campaign. His son and daughter, along with his stepchildren, were paraded at the Tories' spring conference, American-style.

He drew tears when telling the story of how his grandmother died at Auschwitz.

He has tried to appear as youthful as possible, jumping in and out of helicopters. His shadow cabinet is now populated with younger men and women, trying to direct the gaze of possible voters towards the future not the past.

Though Howard supported the government's policy towards Iraq, he has accused Mr Blair of lying to the people over the intelligence reports on which he based his decision to go to war.

He doesn't expect to win over the anti-war Labour disillusioned, but rather to scatter the seeds of mistrust in the prime minister to other issues.

Mr Howard's personal rating has begun to improve, albeit from a low base. Nevertheless, most commentators believe the chances of Michael Howard winning the election are slim.

But if the Tories close the gap significantly on Labour, their hopes of success next time round will be that much greater. This will also determine whether or not Michael Howard is more than a stop-gap Conservative leader.






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