MICHAEL HOWARD may be publicly ridiculed by Labour as a has- been, an authoritarian and even a Count Dracula figure, but in private he is seen as the one Tory that Tony Blair truly fears in the House of Commons.
Prime Minister's Questions, if Mr Howard seizes the Tory mantle, will be a battle between political Titans - and Titans that know each other well.
The MP for Folkestone and Hythe is an old sparring partner of the Prime Minister and they are familiar with one another's political weaknesses, intellectual strengths, and rhetorical tricks. The two faced each other in the House of Commons for years when the tables were turned and Tony Blair was a young, up-and-coming opposition MP and Michael Howard was a feared member of the cabinet.
Mr Howard even then had a reputation for ruthlessness and forensic cruelty. But Mr Blair held his own against his adversary, although he was 13 years his junior and had never held government office.
Their jousts at the despatch box spanned Mr Howard's stints at Employment and Home Affairs and were seen by contemporaries as some of the most evenly- matched bouts in Westminster. "They were both quick and smart. It was an even contest between the younger man and the cabinet minister," said one former MP, now in the House of Lords.
And the two had much in common. Not only were both on the ascendant in their political careers, but both were barristers with a killer instinct and an affection for no-holds-barred contests. They faced each other over crime, terrorism and the minimum wage. During most struggles, the points were even. They delighted in hyperbole and insults, in debates that combined high drama with an element of theatre.
The jousting matches between the ambitious member for Sedgefield and his older opponent helped forge Tony Blair's reputation as a formidable commons performer. When John Smith died in May 1994 he won the backing of MPs who had admired his stamina and steel at the despatch box.
Tony Blair's catchphrase "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" met with an equally snappy reposte: "I know what causes crime: criminals."
In one Parliamentary battle on cutting crime, Tony Blair accused the Home Secretary - ironically as it turned out - of spin. "People want a strategy to fight crime that works. They want one that will cut crime. They want a strategy that, above all, is geared not to catching headlines so that Ministers can give the illusion of activity but to stopping crime so that communities become safer," the Labour MP said.
"For 14 years, the Tories have had the chance in government to put things right, but there have been 14 years of Tory failure."
Earlier Mr Blair had attempted to wrongfoot his opponent by ridiculing his backing for a fictional character in the BBC Radio 4 soap opera, The Archers. "The Home Secretary would certainly do less damage in Ambridge than he does in Whitehall," he said.
The two traded punches over terrrorism in March 1994 with Michael Howard implying that Labour was soft on terrorists. "It is one thing to loathe terrorism; it is another thing to translate that loathing into practical action," he said
They even faced each other over the minimum wage, in an acrimonious dispute in March 1992, when Mr Howard launched a tirade of criticism against his young opponent. "If the point is to avoid people being poor, then his is an extraordinarily stupid way of doing it," challenged Mr Howard.
Last night former aides of Mr Blair said that he had a great deal of respect for his former opponent. "They respected each other. They each managed to score points against each other," said Tim Allan, former deputy Press Secretary at Downing Street.
Yesterday the Prime Minister made it clear he personally admired his old adversary but was not concerned about facing him again. "He was a good performer in the House of Commons," he said on BBC radio. …