Monday, May 31, 2004

How Badly does Howard want to win?

What is Michael Howard for?

His partisans would say that the answer to this question is simple. He wants to be the next Conservative Prime Minister.

On the other hand there are less charitable souls who will look at his age, his ability to give young children nightmares with that smile and the Jeremy Paxman interview and think that he's something other than Prime Ministerial material. Unlike IDS he will not gamble everything on winning, but will concentrate on consolidating a solid Tory opposition. Then another, younger and more human character - Liam Fox, say - can take over.

Well the chance to prove us less charitable souls wrong has appeared. Tomorrow (or today for those of you who read blogs at sensible times) Mr Howard will give a speech against the threat de jour, UKIP, and all the indications are that it will be a scorcher.

UKIP friendly types such as Christopher Booker are worrying that it will be ad hominem, pointing to the fact that there are more divisions and oddballs in UKIP than the average Trotskyite cult. I say fair enough, the job of a party leader is to rubbish other parties, and to use the material at hand.

However the Prime Ministerial mettle will be proved in the use he makes of another piece of ammunition, withdrawal from the European Union. UKIP's signature issue could be a boon for an opposition party leader protecting his flank but a pitfall for any realistic future Prime Minister. Of course withdrawal will be attacked, but it is how it is attacked that will be the issue.

Is withdrawal hasty or unthinkable? That is will Howard rule out withdrawal forever? This may seem simple. After all the Tory policy is to remain in the European Union and this could be a cheap way of pleasing the Tory wets and the dwindling band of corporate donors who are still keen on all things European.

For an opposition leader this is cheap, for a Eurosceptic Prime Minister it will prove very expensive. If withdrawal is not an option then Euroscepticism is just cheap talk and obstructive actions. Any Tory foreign minister will just be Jack Straw with a better suit. Expulsion is Europe’s nuclear option, withdrawal could be our silver bullet. Any Tory policy on Europe will have to at least flirt with withdrawal, and the British public must be taught not to fear life outside Europe.

If Howard rules withdrawal out, it’s time to start speculating on the next Tory leader – one who actually wants to be PM.


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