TCS interviews Michael Howard

Molly Moss 1 May 2017

With an impressive portfolio of offices to his name, from the Home Secretary, to the Environment Secretary, to various shadow cabinet positions, and ultimately the Leader of the Conservative Party, Lord Michael Howard is a seasoned political veteran. However, the interview begins with a reflection on his youth and student life at Cambridge. He recounts being part of the ‘Cambridge Mafia’, the untypically large clan of Cambridge-educated politicians that ultimately descended upon the front-line of Westminster in the 1980s. His involvement in this Cambridge Conservative political scene was not without its turbulence, seen particularly in his resignation from the CUCA committee. It was triggered by the extension of an invitation to Oswald Mosley. Having already spoken at a meeting the previous Michaelmas, the notorious leader of the British Union of Fascists was asked to do so again. Although Lord Howard states that he remains unequivocally committed to free expression, he felt obliged to resign in despair at what he saw as the unnecessary return of a man who Howard brands as a “quisling”.

Broadening the discussion to his political career, I ask him to discuss an issue that is dear to him – climate change. Having been a Minister of State for the Environment, he served as the Environment Secretary from 1992-1993. Indeed, just a few weeks ago he publicly commented on what he sees as the self-evident compatibility of economic growth and climate change. I ask him to discuss this further with regards to the growing anxiety over the neoliberal doctrine of seemingly unlimited growth and rocketing carbon emissions. He begins by challenging the assumption that growth is necessary unlimited, but does not then appear to suggest that growth should be curbed in any profound sense. Whilst Lord Howard does not directly address the issue raised in the question, he provides an insightful account of what he terms the “most extraordinary day in my career”.

Preceding the 1992 Rio Summit on climate change, which laid the foundations for the Kyoto Protocol, there was severe “uncertainty over whether President Bush Snr would attend”. Had he not done so, Lord Howard states the summit would have been ultimately been “a damp squid”. Hence, in order to secure his attendance, Howard recalls how the then-Prime Minister John Major drafted him out to Washington. He then spent an entire day pleading to countless Republican officials “with the opposite view” to change their tune on Rio. Furthermore, in light of Bush’s trepidation over the language on emissions stabilisation, Howard worked tirelessly alongside a prominent White House deputy, Robert Zoellick, to reach a compromise, which then secured the President’s participation at the summit. Lord Howard’s illuminating account serves to show his indispensable role in securing key international framework on climate change.

I follow up by asking him to ponder whether in light of the election of President Trump, it would be possible to continue to work with the U.S. on climate matters. Initially taking a pessimistic view, he suggests that deep cooperation on the matter would be unlikely, and that he regrets the failure to elect an individual who “accepted the science”. However, with his more usual optimism, he goes on to suggest that actually “Trump’s election doesn’t matter as much as first sight might appear”. He suggests that with countries like China now “doing serious things to combat carbon emissions”, and with the vast array of activity taking place at state level, there need be no reason to be substantially discouraged by the change of U.S. administration.

Another theme Lord Howard discusses is campaigns. He comments on his perhaps unfortunate interview with Jeremy Paxman, in which Paxman unrelentingly fired a question about the 1995 sacking of prisons chief Derek Lewis a staggering fourteen times. Whilst he concedes that this was “not his finest hour”, he suggests that the reason Paxman unyieldingly persisted was because of the failure to book another guest to follow his appearance on the programme. Furthermore, he claims that, perhaps counter-intuitively, the debacle actually did him “a great favour” by harming his leadership bid. In the context of the first four years of the ‘New Labour’ government that consigned the Conservatives to a state of irrelevance, Lord Howard felt he was better placed to have an impact slightly further down the road. However, moving on to a discussion of the current election campaign, it’s clear that even a political grandee of the likes of Howard is struck by the astounding domestic contemporary political climate. When asked whether the calling of the election was opportunistic in light of the Labour Party’s dwindling poll numbers, he unsurprisingly leaps to Theresa May’s defence. He invokes the House of Lords, casting them as “obstructive”, and “full of remainers”. Similarly, he notes that with a clear mandate and a commanding majority in the Commons, Theresa May will be better placed to deliver Brexit – a Brexit that for Lord Howard cannot entail continued single market and customs union membership.

One of the final thoughts that Howard ponders on is his post-leadership political life. He states that, he has “no regrets about giving up leadership” when he did. “It is better to go when people say why are you going than when people say why is bugger still around”.

Whilst at times Lord Howard danced around a subject (albeit thoughtfully) without getting to its core essence, he equally delivered direct and incisive comments. Following Stephen Fry’s recent talk, Michael Howard’s presence at the Cambridge Union is again indicative of the particularly high-profile line up of speakers gracing the society this term. Indeed, during the talk to the Union itself, Howard further grappled with a plethora of contemporary predicaments, and expressed his views on subjects from Trump, Russia and Syria, to grammar schools and Brexit, and his fascinating work with Hospice UK. Regardless of whether one agreed with his analysis of the British and wider political world, the former Conservative leader conducted himself eloquently, and appeared to enjoy his successful evening at the Union just as much as the members in attendance enjoyed theirs.