His bark is worse than his bite

9 June 2009

Taymoor Atighetchi talks to former Conservative Party leader Michael Howard.

I arrived at Michael Howard’s office fifteen minutes late due to minor complications at the reception desk of Conservative HQ.

By minor complications I refer rather to a single major complication and by that, I refer to the hopeless receptionist who was convinced Mr Howard was not in his office. But of course, he was. I as keen to get along with the ageing politician and so began on familiar ground, asking about his Cambridge years which he passionately claims, “changed my life”. A student of Peterhouse, Michael Howard was President of the Cambridge Union Society. After taking a 2:1 in the first part of the Economics tripos, he switched to Law and graduated with a 2:2 in 1962.

I informed him that the 2:2 is now commonly referred to as the Desmond named after the South African cleric and activist, Desmond Tutu. The joke didn’t quite kick,and my attempt to establish a light hearted and jovial ambience was cut short. A shame, really, when I still had yet to interview him.

Michael Howard, the son of a Romanian-born shopkeeper, was once called Michael Hecht. When Howard was six, the family name, Hecht, was anglicised to Howard. I found this intriguing and was keen to understand whether this was part of a grander scheme, orchestrated by his family, to ‘fit in’: “I’ve been Michael Howard since I was 6… so I’ve always been called Michael Howard.”

I wasn’t convinced:

(TA) “Your ancestry came up quite frequently during your campaign as leader of the opposition, most notably in light of your proposed immigration policies. In the recent past, politicians such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Barack Obama have used the fact that they are first generation citizens to great success. You however chose not to play the generation game and employ such tactics…”

(MH) “That’s simply not true. If you listen to some of my conference speeches you will see that I did talk about my ancestry and talked about how I owe a huge amount to this country.”

The prickly issue of image, spin and PR played a great role in the 2005 election. It was undoubtedly crucial to the success of Tony Blair in that it destabilized the Tory party and presented them as sleazy opportunists. Furthermore, Ann Widdecombe, his former minister of state in the Home Office, famously made a statement in the House of Commons in which she remarked of Howard that “there is something of the night about him”. Labour’s press team were quick to establish this as the enduring image of the man and they succeeded in doing so. For these “dark arts that have lowered the political tone”, as Mr Howard put it, he blames Alastair Campbell.

(MH) “Alastair Campbell bullied and lied his way across the political landscape and we are much the worse for it. He quite simply behaved in an appalling way and Tony Blair must be held responsible for that because he knew exactly what was going on.”

The tone with which he delivered this comment seemed to me to be one of bitterness and, perhaps, even one of sadeness. Unmistakably it was the voice of a man who handles defeat poorly:

(MH) “We did have an image problem because Alastair Campbell had unfairly demonised the Conservative party and I believe one of the great achievements of David Cameron is the way he’schanged that… he doesn’t lie and doesn’t bully”.

Perhaps not, but he certainly has proved to be as conscious of image as a page three girl with no tits. I reminded him of Cameron’s embarrassing choice of vehicle – the eco-friendly bicycle that drags behind it an entourage of gas guzzling motorcars. He erupted:

(MH) “No, no, now hang on a minute… if you’re going to make these points you’ve got to get your facts right. The suggestion was that he was being followed by one car carrying his box. You can’t put a box full of papers on a bicycle.”

I struggled to comprehend how reducing the number of vehicles behind the bicycle rendered it less idiotic. Trying to forge a small concession I asked him whether or not he felt the Tory party was now a victim of PR politics.

(MH) “Well it has been a victim. But I don’t think David Cameron is a perpetrator of it.”

I turned now to another figure that has successfully bullied Mr Howard, but this time, on TV. I refer to Jeremy Paxman. In 1997, the television interviewer asked him the same question 12 times during an edition of the Newsnight programme only to receive irrelevant and indirect responses.

(MH) “The reason he asked the question so many times was that the next person he was due to interview hadn’t turned up.”

I decided to stop grilling the man and asked him to reflect on his political career:

(MH) “I came to politics to make a difference… and I think I did make a difference.”

In light of Sarkozy’s high profile marriage to Carla Bruni, I asked Mr Howard, “What makes you politicians so attractive?”

His mouth gradually stretched into a slightly sinister smile. I would describe it as the smile of a player. One you would wear as you etch the 100th notch on your bedpost. You see, Michael Howard is married to a model: Sandra Paul, the one off the M&S ad.

(MH) “Well you’ll have to ask my wife that…”

His grin grew wider and revealed a wide set of teeth. Yes, I thought. Power conceals all.