It’s not going Howard’s Way

by Stephen Tall on February 12, 2005

At what point do you think Michael Howard’s advisors thought letting Michael Cockerell film a BBC fly-on-the-wall documentary was a good idea? And at what point do you think they concluded it had been a big mistake? Of course, the Tories may still be labouring under the delusion that last night’s ‘No More Mr Nasty’ profile (BBC2, 8.05 pm) was a triumph; that it worked its wonder in humanising the Conservative Party’s fourth leader in eight years; that it will be the springboard for their rabbit-out-of-the-hat victory on 5th May.

In one sense, and one sense only, they may be right. It would be utterly churlish to deny that Mr Howard emerged last night as a more human figure than the Transylvanian ‘something of the night’ caricature which has dogged him for a decade. His trouble was in becoming just too damn human: frail, failing, flailing.
Michael Howard
Asked how he would wish the electorate to see him, his answer was clear: ‘Like a Prime Minister,’ he asserted. Yet it’s hard to imagine Churchill, Attlee or Lloyd George cheerfully sitting down to watch Rory Bremner mimicking them for sloganning ‘Less tax, less blacks’. Or happily allowing a cameraman to record them punishing their wife’s inferior ping-pong skills with a glee that looked just a little too ruthless. Or willingly be filmed locked out of their own office before a meeting convened to gain the advice of their party’s four ‘wise men’, all of whom were united by their election-losing skills. (At least Messrs Major and Hague were flattened in general elections by the Blair juggernaut; neither Ken Clarke nor IDS succeeded in securing the support of own colleagues, let alone the public at large.)

Back in the days when Michael Portillo was a serious politician – before he forsook it for the glitzy media high-life of a bonkette shared with Diane Abbott – he observed that the public did not want their politicians to be ‘ordinary’ (which grey, pea-eating Prime Minister he may have had in mind is hard to fathom). It is not that they expect their MPs to be ‘extraordinary’, or, worse, ‘other worldly’, but that the political process should gather about it a sense of mystique; that, like sausages, no-one wants to know how our laws are made. I’ve never been convinced by this argument. It smacks of the worst style of elitism, seeking to keep the masses amused with bread and circuses.

However, in our post-‘Celebrity Big Brother’ world, television has become smaller, as have those who inhabit it. We do not watch such reality shows to be seduced by their stars’ glamour, but to question their motivations and to judge their actions. Sharp editing can frame in one perfect instant our perception of an individual’s whole personality. The viewer now ‘reads’ television in a hyper-critical way, looking for the editorial subtext, alert for each ironic juxtaposition.

Last night’s show, the Tories must have hoped, would demonstrate how Mr Howard has moved on from his relentlessly and smarmily illiberal 1990s’ schtick. Well, that sort of worked. The trouble is I was left with absolutely no idea where he’s moved on to. What is the Tories’ unique selling point these days? At least with Margaret Thatcher, so the joke goes, you knew where you knelt.

Today’s Tories seem to spend half their lives declaring themselves to be nice and in touch, while the other half is occupied proving how nasty and out of touch they still are. The point was rather rammed home by their brief forays onto the streets to assail passers-by. In fairness, Mr Howard appears to relish the task, brushing aside with commendable imperviousness the frequent cold shoulders he was offered. But his loyal lieutenants, Tory Boys clad in courdroy suits and hair-slick, seemed baffled by the askance looks that were cast in their direction by people in jeans. Not the sort of thing you get in Kensington and Chelsea (at least not the parts they frequent).

Very little of ‘No More Mr Nasty’ focused on Michael Howard’s vision of the future under the Tory Government which will be formed on 6th May. Why? Because we all know that’s just a fantasy, that the very, very best which the Tories might hope for is a hung Parliament, and that, in such a scenario, Charles Kennedy will not hand Mr Howard the keys to Number 10.

Instead, the focus of the Tory week appears to be noon on Wednesday, when Mr Howard is able to challenge Mr Blair directly at Prime Minister’s Questions. Hours and hours are dedicated to formulating stratagems which might trip up his foe, though with scant expectation of success. But this is the closest the Tory leader can come to experiencing what it’s like to be in Mr Blair’s shoes. Just two-and-a-half swords separate Mr Howard from the Premiership title (yet his beloved Liverpool FC have more chance of winning such an accolade).

The Conservative Party remains mired in the past for the simple reason that it likes it there. The past is where their glories are to be found. Last night’s film captured, with delicious acuity, their retro-fanaticism. Labour will doubtless have been gloating at the negative vibes it transmitted. They shouldn’t. The Tories’ mess is a warning of what can happen when a strong leader, who divides their party and the people between love and loathing, departs the stage. Labour’s post-Blair implosion will be just as ugly.