Michael Howard: Based on a true Tory

THERE is something of the flight about Michael Howard. Having just stepped off the plane from a transatlantic trip, the former Tory leader is meeting me in his Parliamentary office. He is softly spoken and evidently exhausted, smiling quite philosophical

THERE is something of the flight about Michael Howard. Having just stepped off the plane from a transatlantic trip, the former Tory leader is meeting me in his Parliamentary office.

He is softly spoken and evidently exhausted, smiling quite philosophically in the face of questions about political opponents rather than taking the stern, emboldened opposition for which he's famous.

But Howard is not only tired of hotfooting it around the globe.

At the next election, the man who started his career 25 years ago, and has consequently become one of the best known faces of the Conservative party, will also stop hotfooting it through the corridors of power and step down.

"I always think it's better to go when some people are kind enough to say they wish you were staying, rather than waiting on until the point when people say you should have gone years ago," he laughs.

"I've done my bit. I think I'm lucky - I've had a very good run, and now it's time for others to take up the challenge."

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Howard is one of the most experienced politicians in British parliament. Elected in 1983, he was Conservative leader from 2003 to 2005 (following a failed leadership attempt in 1997) and has also held the posts of Minister for Local Government, Secretary of State for Employment and then Environ-ment, Home Secretary, Shadow Foreign Secretary and Shadow Chancellor.

But despite this lifetime draw to the political flame Howard is sure he can walk away.

"I am intending to retire," he states firmly. "It has been a huge part of my life but I've had a very good run, I've done my bit and it's now time to let others take up the challenge."

Passing on the baton to his successor David Cameron wasn't hard for Howard.

The new Conservative leader worked in his office as a special adviser in 1993 and as a result Howard speaks with an almost godfatherly affection for the new Tory number one.

"I did spot the potential in Cameron," he said. "His mother reminded me the other day that I told her back then that if it was possible to say of someone in their 20s that they would become Prime Minister, then David would become Prime Minister."

It isn't, of course, Cameron who is causing a stir for the party at the moment but his right hand man George Osborne.

Criticism from all quarters seems to be being levelled at the Shadow Chancellor - calls of inexperience; masses of media coverage on his socialising with oligarchs and possible touting for party funds; anger from the government for his talk of the pound's collapse and even colleagues have sent him to a vocal coach to mute his tinny boarding school tones.

But as with his dedication to Cameron, Howard refuses to budge in his support for Osborne and says, as the next chancellor, he will undo much of Brown's negative action on the economy.

"I think George Osborne was absolutely right to speak out about the danger against the pound," Howard said. "It's a duty in opposition to draw attention to these things and there is no convention that opposition politicians shoul d not speak.

"I think it's a naked attempt by the Government to muzzle him and I certainly disagree that he is not experienced enough. I think he is more than capable of meeting the challenges we face.

"Gordon Brown has done a great deal to cause this crisis. There is an international dimension to this but I think the steps he took as Chancellor have weakened this country's ability to deal with a crisis.

"Borrowing is bound to come back to haunt this country - it has got to be paid back and will lead to higher taxes.

"Conservative governments are always elected to clear up the messes Labour governments have left behind and they usually manage to do that and I am sure that will happen again this time."

Even if a loyal supporter to those who inherited the party reins, Howard does seem to speak with a certain air of regret at a party which no longer belongs to him.

"The current Conservative Party is gearing up to meet the challenges of the 21st century," he explains. "The Conservative Parliamentary Party that I joined in 1983 was facing the very different challenges of the late 20th century.

"Where you face different challenges you've got to change in order to meet them.

"I fully support what they are doing and I think David is doing an excellent job. He is holding onto Conservative values because he believes in those values but you've got to look for leeway in applying them to the problems of the day - and that's what he's doing."

Likewise elements of the general political landscape have turned Howard off. Like most elected officials, he has suffered his fair share of blows and that Widdecombe comment - and Labour's flying pig poster - come as key landmarks in his career.

But the fact that it is these superficial elements which are most clearly recalled seems to have left Howard rather depressed at the state of modern politics even if there is nothing to do to stop it.

"I don't lament anything. I would like more attention to be paid to policy than some of the frivolous things people seem to care a lot about but I know that's not going to happen.

"Personally you have to get used to that sort of thing. It does frustrate me that politics can be reduced to that but there's nothing you do about it. You just have to accept it."

But as of next year he won't have to deal with it any more.

When Howard steps down from parliament he says he will keep some business interests but move away from public life.

And when this man who has spent a lifetime in the spotlight bows out, it is likely it will be the serious political experience, rather than superficial memories which will most be missed.

o Michael Howard will be giving a talk in conversation with the BBC's Reeta Chakrabarti on Tuesday December 2 at the London Jewish Cultural Centre on North End Road. The talk begins at 8pm and tickets are £17.50 in advance on 020-8457 5000 or by email www.ljcc.org.uk.