Michael Howard

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Michael Howard
Michael Howard

The Right Honourable Michael Howard, QC, PC (born Michael Hecht, July 7, 1941) is a British politician, the Leader of the Opposition Conservative Party (although stepping down soon). He previously held a variety of positions within the 1979-1997 Conservative government, most notably Home Secretary under John Major.


Early life

Howard was born in Gorseinon, Swansea, Wales, near to Llanelli where his Romanian Jewish shopkeeper father Bernard Hecht had moved as an economic migrant (not an asylum seeker as it is sometimes put forward). When he was six, the family name of Hecht was anglicised to become Howard [1] (http://politics.guardian.co.uk/conservatives/story/0,9061,1076249,00.html). He attended a state school and Peterhouse, Cambridge and was President of the Cambridge Union Society in 1962. Howard was one of a cluster of bright Conservative students at Cambridge around this time, many of whom went on to hold high government office under Margaret Thatcher and Sir John Major.

He was called to the Bar (Inner Temple) in 1964 and specialised in employment law and planning issues. In the 1966 election he fought the safe Labour seat of Liverpool Edge Hill, which led to his support for Liverpool F.C.. The late 1960s saw his promotion within the Bow Group where he became Chairman in 1970 shortly after the general election in which he was again defeated at Edge Hill. At the Conservative Party conference of 1970, he made a speech commending the government for curbing trade union power.

At this time Howard was a leading advocate of British membership of the Common Market (EEC) and served on the board of the cross-party Britain in Europe group.

Howard was named as co-respondent in the high profile divorce case of former 1960s model Sandra Paul. She and Howard subsequently married in 1975 (her fourth marriage); their son Nicholas was born in 1976 and daughter Larissa in 1977. Unlike his Cambridge contemporaries, Howard found difficulty being selected for a winnable seat and so continued his career at the Bar where he became a Queen's Counsel in 1982. In one case he appeared against a younger barrister, Tony Blair, who was also taking up employment law. In June 1982, Howard was finally selected for the constituency of Folkestone and Hythe in succession to Sir Albert Costain, who was retiring. He won his seat in the general election of 1983 without difficulty.

Career in Government

Howard entered the Government early, becoming Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Trade and Industry in 1985 with responsibility for regulating the financial dealings of the City of London. This junior post became very important as he oversaw the Big Bang introduction of new technology in 1986. After the 1987 election he became Minister for Local Government where he became involved in two major political controversies. On behalf of the Government, he accepted the amendment which became Section 28, and defended its inclusion.

He then guided through the House of Commons the Local Government Finance Act 1988 which brought in Mrs Thatcher's new system of local taxation, officially known as the Community Charge but almost universally nicknamed the poll tax. Howard personally supported the tax and was respected by Mrs Thatcher for minimising the rebellion against it within the Conservative Party. After a period as Minister for Water and Planning in 1988/89, in which time he was responsible for implementing water privatization in England and Wales, Howard was promoted to the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Employment in January 1990 when Norman Fowler resigned "to spend more time with his family". Howard therefore took on responsibility for legislation abolishing the closed shop. He campaigned vigorously for Mrs Thatcher in the leadership contest following her resignation in November 1990. He retained the same cabinet post under John Major and made many attacks on trade union power as part of the 1992 general election campaign.

His work in the campaign led to his appointment as Secretary of State for the Environment in the reshuffle after the election. He undertook some diplomacy to encourage the United States to participate in the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, but was soon after appointed as Secretary of State for the Home Department in a 1993 reshuffle initiated by the sacking of Norman Lamont. His tenure as Home Secretary was especially notable for his tough approach to crime, which he summed up in the soundbite "Prison works". Howard repeatedly clashed with judges and prison reformers as he sought to clamp down on crime through a series of "tough" measures.

Infamous interview on Newsnight

His reputation was dented in 1996 when a critical inquiry into a series of prison escapes was published. In advance of the publication Howard made statements to assign blame to the prison service. A further controversy came when a television interviewer, Jeremy Paxman, relentlessly asked him the same question (12 times in all, and not the widely believed 14 times) during an edition of the Newsnight programme [2] (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/newsnight/3094255.stm). Asking whether Howard had intervened when Derek Lewis sacked a prison governor, Paxman asked: "Did you threaten to overrule him?" Howard did not give a direct answer, instead repeatedly saying that he "did not overrule him", and ignoring the "threaten" part of the question. The BBC subsequently revealed that the prolonged period where the question was repeated was in fact a "filler" to extend the interview, as technical reasons meant the next segment of that night's Newsnight was not ready for broadcast. While some praised the interview for journalistic toughness, others, including some in the BBC, criticised it as a theatrical stunt. The interview remains one of the most famous in broadcasting history. In the longer term its precise impact on Howard's reputation remains disputed. Some suggest that it highlighted his arrogant refusal to answer the question; others suggest that it highlighted his resilience and refusal to be bullied into doing something he did not want to do, even by one of Britain's toughest interviewers. In a November 2004 interview (see below) Paxman returned to his question from 1996. Mr Howard was surprised, remarking: "Come on Jeremy, are you really going back over that again? As it happens, I didn't. Are you satisfied now?" [3] (http://news.bbc.co.uk/newswatch/ukfs/hi/newsid_4030000/newsid_4038700/4038733.stm) The final part of the story happened in 2005, when under the Freedom of Information Act the Conservative Party obtained documents that demonstrated that Howard did not threaten to overrule Derek Lewis.

First attempt to become Conservative leader

After the 1997 resignation of John Major, he and William Hague announced they would be running on the same ticket, with Howard as leader and Hague as Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, the day after they agreed this, Hague decided to run his own campaign. Howard also stood but his campaign was marred by a high profile controversy surrounding his record as Home Secretary.

When the first round of polling occurred in the leadership election, Howard came a disappointing fifth out of five candidates with the support of only twenty-three MPs. He withdrew from the race and endorsed William Hague, who was eventually elected leader. Howard served as Shadow Foreign Secretary for the next two years but in 1999 he retired from the Shadow Cabinet though remaining an MP.

"Something of the night about him," claims Widdecombe

Ann Widdecombe, his former junior minister in the Home Office, made a statement to Parliament about the dismissal of then Director of the Prison Service, Derek Lewis and famously remarked of Howard that "there is something of the night about him", a bitter and widely quoted comment that fatally damaged his 1997 bid for the Conservative Party leadership. The comment was taken as a "bitchy" reference to his dour demeanour, which she was implying was sinister and almost Dracula-like, related to his Romanian ancestry.

Elected leader in 2003

After the 2001 General Election Howard was recalled to frontline politics when the Conservatives' new leader Iain Duncan Smith appointed him as Shadow Chancellor. After Duncan Smith was removed from the leadership by the parliamentary party, Howard was elected unopposed as leader of the party in 2003. Many commentators feel that he is more successful as Conservative Leader than Iain Duncan Smith was, although others suspect his close association with the former government of Margaret Thatcher could limit his popularity.

In February 2004, Howard called on Tony Blair to resign over the Iraq war, because he had failed to ask "basic questions" regarding WMD claims and misled Parliament [4] (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/3460771.stm). In July the Conservative leader stated that he would not have voted for the motion that authorised the Iraq war had he known the quality of intelligence information on which the WMD claims were based. At the same time, he said he still believed in the Iraq invasion was right because "the prize of a stable Iraq was worth striving for". [5] (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/3910371.stm) His criticism of Blair did not earn Howard sympathies in Washington, where President Bush refused to meet him; Karl Rove is reported to have told Howard: "You can forget about meeting the president full stop. Don't bother coming." [6] (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/3608006.stm)

Michael Howard was named Parliamentarian of the Year for 2003 by The Spectator and Zurich UK. This was in recognition of his performance at the despatch box in his previous role as Shadow Chancellor.

Crossing swords with Paxman

In November 2004, Newsnight again concentrated on Howard with coverage of a campaign trip to Cornwall and an interview with Jeremy Paxman. The piece, which purported to show that members of the public were unable to identify Howard and that those who did did not support him, was the subject of an official complaint from the Conservative Party. The party claimed that the Newsnight team only spoke to people who held opinions against Michael Howard or the Conservatives, and regarded Paxman's style as bullying and unnecessarily aggressive.

2005 Election

In the May 2005 general election Michael Howard failed to unseat the Labour Government, although the Conservatives did gain 33 seats, playing the most significant role in reducing Labour's majority from 167 to 66. The Conservative share of the national vote was only up 0.6% from 2001 and 1.6% from 1997, however. Still the extra seats gained did not reflect the overall share of the national vote, commentators pointing to the state of Britain's constituency boundaries, which heavily discriminated in favour of the Labour Party. It is estimated that changes proposed by the Boundary Commission for England would result in 10-20 seats turning Conservative without any change in the vote.

The day after the election, Howard stated in a speech in the newly-gained Conservative seat in Putney that he would not lead the party into the next General Election as he would be "too old", and that he would stand down "sooner rather than later", following a revision of the Conservative leadership electoral process. Despite the election of a third consecutive Labour government, Howard described the election as "the beginning of a recovery" for the Conservative party after Labour's landslide victories in 1997 and 2001.

Howard's own constituency of Folkestone and Hythe had been heavily targeted by the Liberal Democrats as the most sought after prize of their "decapitation" strategy of seeking to gain the seats of prominent Conservatives. In the event Howard almost doubled his majority to 11,680, whilst the Liberal Democrats saw their vote fall.

Criticism of 2005 campaign

During the 2005 campaign, Howard was criticised by some commentators for alleged hypocrisy in conducting a campaign which addressed the issues of immigration, asylum seekers and travellers, when he was himself the descendant of immigrants. Although part of a broader campaign some critics perceived this as the main focus. Others point out that the continued media coverage of such issues created most of the controversy, Howard merely defending his views when questioned at unrelated policy launches. Ironically, the public generally supported Conservative policies when they were not told which party was proposing them. This support fell when they were told they were Conservative, indicating that the Party still had an image problem.

The "focus" on immigration was widely believed to be influenced by Howard's election adviser Lynton Crosby, who has been described as using similar tactics in Australian elections. [7] (http://www.safecom.org.au/2005/04/lynton-crosby-globetrotting-spreading.htm) Whether this was a good idea or not in hindsight, his organisation of the campaign was credited with making the Conservative election drive much more professional and organised than at the last election.

Lord Saatchi's Comments

Lord Saatchi, co-chairman of the Party for the 2005 campaign, published his reflections in a Centre for Policy Studies pamphlet If this is Conservatism, I am a Conservative in a chapter entitled How I Lost the Election. Although presented as his personal failings, many newspapers including The Daily Telegraph and The Independent reported on the 20th June 2005 that it was believed by the Party leadership to be a criticism of their handling of the campaign. Among 'his' failings listed in the document, Lord Saatchi highlighted the following:

  • "I DID NOT convince the Party that if you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything."
  • "I DID NOT dispel the illusion of research, which said that, as immigration was the number one issue in deciding how people vote, it should be the number one topic."
  • "I DID NOT prevent economics, the Conservatives' former ace of trumps, becoming a 'second order issue.'"
  • "I DID NOT avoid the underestimation of public intelligence, as in the policy description 'Lower Taxes' when in fact taxes would be higher."

Post Election Reshuffle

Despite announcing after the 2005 General Election that he would vacate the role of party leader, Howard performed a substantial reshuffle of the party's front bench on the 10th of May in which several rising star MPs were given their first shadow portfolios, in particular George Osborne and David Cameron.

See also

External links

Preceded by:
Norman Fowler
Secretary of State for Employment
Succeeded by:
Gillian Shephard
Preceded by:
Michael Heseltine
Secretary of State for the Environment
Succeeded by:
John Gummer
Preceded by:
Kenneth Clarke
Home Secretary
Succeeded by:
Jack Straw
Preceded by:
Iain Duncan Smith
Leader of the British Conservative Party
Succeeded by:
Expected to stand down

Template:End boxcy:Michael Howard de:Michael Howard pl:Michael Howard sv:Michael Howard zh:迈克尔霍华德


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