Perspective: Has Howard Appointed the Dream Team?; Michael Howard Has Stream-Lined His Shadow Cabinet to Make It More Voter Friendly, but Jonathan Walker Spies Weaknesses That Labour Will Be Quick to Take Advantage Of

The Birmingham Post (England), November 12, 2003 | Go to article overview

Perspective: Has Howard Appointed the Dream Team?; Michael Howard Has Stream-Lined His Shadow Cabinet to Make It More Voter Friendly, but Jonathan Walker Spies Weaknesses That Labour Will Be Quick to Take Advantage Of


Byline: Jonathan Walker

Michael Howard is enjoying a short political honeymoon -but it won't last much longer. He will rely on his shadow Cabinet to help him through the more difficult times which are just around the corner.

So the new Tory leader will soon discover whether Monday's appointments were the right ones.

The chaos which engulfed the Conservatives, from the run up to their party conference to the dismissal of Iain Duncan Smith as leader last month, was not new.

It was a culmination of the disorder which has afflicted the party since William Hague became leader in 1997, and arguably since Margaret Thatcher was toppled 13 years ago.

Conservative MPs are delighted at the prospect of ending it at last. Nobody wants to rock the boat now.

Mr Howard's smooth assumption to the leadership also suggested the Conservatives had rediscovered the ability to get things done, and a hunger for power.

And there was a consensus that Mr Duncan Smith, whatever his failings, had developed new policies which at the very least were original and interesting, and could prove popular.

But Mr Howard is not a new opposition leader appointed after an election defeat, with five years to go until the next vote. The general election could be only 18 months away.

Furthermore, Mr Howard is not up against a new and fresh-faced Prime Minister. Labour has been in office for six years, and should be vulnerable to attack. His own side will expect him to get results, and soon.

Meanwhile, Labour intends to paint him as a far right-winger, tainted by association with the poll tax and John Major's disastrous administration.

And now that the leadership issue has been resolved, Tory policies will be scrutinised properly, for the first time.

It is unclear how the party will explain plans to boost pensions, end student fees and cut taxes, all at once. The appointment of the new shadow Cabinet could be the signal for the political battle to begin in earnest.

Mr Howard's appointment of a slimline top team is designed to let him hit the ground running.

The 12 members are not supposed to represent the shape of a future Conservative government. This is a campaign group, ready to make decisions efficiently, respond to events quickly and hit the television studios and lobby corridors with a united message whenever needed.

The reduction in size is also designed to help every member boost their profile. Iain Duncan Smith had a shadow Cabinet of 26, and, inevitably, much of the public never knew who half of them were.

Mr Howard has attempted to include all sections of the party. Michael Portillo's ally Francis Maude didn't make it in -perhaps in response to his blatant plotting against Mr Duncan Smith.

But moderniser Tim Yeo takes on the plum role of shadow Health and Education Secretary.

He is a strong communicator and should be constantly on our screens as 'Mr public services'. Labour, however, will argue that merging these two roles proves the Tories don't really care about either of them.

David Willetts, the intellectual known as 'two-brains' who attended King Edward's School in Birmingham, is another moderniser. He sits on the shadow Cabinet as head of policy co-ordination.

David Curry, shadow Secretary of State for local government, the regions, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, is a Ken Clarke ally on the left of the party.

And Oliver Letwin, the shadow Chancellor, Trade and Work and Pensions Secretary, is a self-proclaimed liberal.

On the right, there's David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, Liam Fox, one of two party chairmen and Mr Howard himself.

Mr Fox will be the political chairman, dealing with MPs and appearing on television, while his co-chair, Lord Saatchi, will employ his business skills in managing the party machinery.

Midland MPs, none of whom are in the shadow Cabinet, have experienced mixed fortunes.

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