Stealing from BNP

The selection of Howard as leader - with the other camp too weakened even to field a token standard bearer - indicates the Tories have effectively accepted the BNP's logic. Worried about the so-called vacuum on the left? Watch out for the pressure cooker on the right.

It took me a little while to recognise the bloke in the wig. But there was definitely something familiar about the curiously clipped syllables of the barrister’s voice.

And then I noticed the name on the order paper. Here indeed was Michael Howard QC - the man behind such political success stories as the poll tax, water privatisation and clause 28 - representing the owners of a ship that sank with the loss of 44 lives.

This must have been some time towards the back end of the first Blair administration. Howard had - as the jargon has it - ‘retired from front-line politics’. Just typical, I remember thinking, as I sat in the press seats in the Royal Courts of Justice annexe.

A one-time home secretary, hanging on to his job as an MP, but milking the position as an agreeable base from which to pursue a rather more lucrative legal career, not to mention the usual slew of part-time directorships that Tory former cabinet ministers invariably manage to accumulate.

Either Howard doesn’t need the money any more, or like some B-movie cliché gangster, he simply couldn’t resist coming back for one last job. But now the man who only a year ago categorically ruled out any interest in leading the Conservative Party has become … well, the new leader of the Conservative Party.

“He’s no Brad Pitt,” astutely observed Tory donor businessman Lord Hanson in his endorsement of Howard’s candidacy, “but you’re not going to get that among the Tories.”

No Brad Pitt, and no bleeding heart liberal, either. Not for nothing was Michael Howard widely regarded as the most rightwing incumbent the home office had ever seen during his stint there from 1993 to 1997.

Tough on crime? You bet. Remember the catchphrase, ‘Prison works’. A popular wisecrack of the period had it that the main pressure group for improving conditions in Britain’s appalling prisons was thinking of changing its name to the Penal League for Howard Reform.

Sympathetic commentators are already trying to paint Howard’s accession as evidence of a new Tory respect for meritocracy. For the first time, they point out, the son of an asylum-seeker stands at the head of a major party.

But you have to wonder what Bernat Hecht - one of the many Jews forced to flee the brutal anti-semitism of pre-war Romania - would have made of his boy’s future career. Home secretary Howard not only introduced further limitations on the right to asylum, of a type that would have hurt exactly those in his father’s position, but cut access to health, housing and education for asylum-seekers already in the UK.

Whatever the recent rhetoric about leading the Conservatives from the centre, there is no evidence that Howard is anything but the man many of us remember less than fondly. Unless he is about to reveal to the hitherto unsuspecting electorate that he has secretly undergone the same electro-convulsive therapy that transformed Michael Portillo, his ideas appear to represent the politics of the late 80s in cryonic suspension.

It’s a cocktail you could call the Bloody Margaret: mix one part Euroscepticism with two parts social authoritarianism; add a strong splash of neoliberalism. Heady stuff.

Of course, there is an audience for this sort of brew, and not just among middle management cadre nostalgic for their yuppie youth. But it isn’t to be found in the political centre. It is to be found on the hard right. That is a reflection of the dilemma the Conservatives now find themselves in.

Blair has permanently shifted the Labour Party solidly onto Thatcherite territory. Both Hague and Duncan Smith repeatedly fought to reclaim the ground in much the manner of the British Expeditionary Force on the western front, with equally little sign of success. Being in government gives Labour the power of initiative and the ability to set the agenda from inside a well-fortified position.

Assuming that Howard has set his sights higher than simply repeating a trench warfare strategy proven to fail twice in succession, the Tories urgently need to rebrand. The trouble is, there are just two ideologically coherent means for a party of their type to differentiate its product. At bottom, recent internal debates in the Conservative Party have centred on whether to move towards either libertarianism or the outright nationalist right.

There is probably a Pim Fortuyn-style niche for a party that countered Labour’s plans for ID cards and fewer jury trials with an agenda that pushed the logic of free market economics into such areas as prostitution or even the legalisation of drugs. Some Tory Young Turks have even dared to say so out loud, fully aware that the party’s dependence on its blue rinse activist base renders such a move a non-starter.

In any case, Howard could not conceivably head up that kind of a party. His voting record on gay rights and abortion issues speaks for itself. If the forces of libertarianism were winning out at Central Office, Michael Portillo wouldn’t be deserting Westminster in favour of a career in reality television.

The only other real possibility is to take the Conservatives down a road pioneered by a range of electorally successful nationalist formations across Europe - and quickly too, before the British National Party can consolidate its hold over this part of the political spectrum. Presumably the process won’t be pretty. Yet the selection of Howard as leader - with the other camp too weakened even to field a token standard bearer - indicates the Tories have effectively accepted this logic.

Worried about the so-called vacuum on the left? Watch out for the pressure cooker on the right.