Tories acclaim Howard bid

EADT Political Editor Graham Dines was at the Saatchi Gallery in London yesterday to watch Michael Howard announce he wants to be the new Conservative leader.

EADT Political Editor Graham Dines was at the Saatchi Gallery in London yesterday to watch Michael Howard announce he wants to be the new Conservative leader.


AS a Welshman and a sports fanatic, Michael Howard will be used to rugby scrums. Yesterday, the man born in the Valleys faced the biggest of his long career in politics.

In the rather strange setting of the Saatchi Gallery in London's County Hall - arriving guests had to negotiate a polka dot covered Mini stuck up a stair case - the Conservative Party all but crowned him its leader..

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Yes, there's a week to go before nominations close for the vacancy left by Iain Duncan Smith's axing. And Tories being Tories, someone might step forward to challenge Mr Howard. But it did seem yesterday that, after 13 long years of bitter in-fighting over four successive leaders, the Conservatives may now be able to put away their daggers.

Outside, the rain slashed down on the River Thames and the half-term holiday tourists queuing for their "flights" on the nearby London Eye. The Riverside Room in the former headquarters of the GLC where the Tories gathered was symbolically chosen - it had the best view of the Houses of Parliament, the battle ground on which Michael Howard will take on the once seemingly unassailable Tony Blair.

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That room was packed to the gunwales with scores of Tory MPs, party workers, refugees from Sir Denis Thatcher's memorial service, and of course we in the media, for whom the leadership announcement was organised.

Plonked down on the front row was the bulk of Sir Nicholas Soames, one of the Tories grandest of grandees. What a coup it would be for Mr Howard if he could persuade Sir Nicholas to accept a prominent role  in the Shadow Cabinet.

John Whittingdale, MP for Maldon and Chelmsford East, believed Mr Howard was "head and shoulders" above any other possible alternative leader. David Ruffley (Bury St Edmunds), Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) and Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) mingled with delight.

As Big Ben struck 3.30, in strode the would-be leader to massive cheers. The relief of the assembled Tories was palpable - a party united at last behind a leader of stature to take on Labour and see off the Lib Dems.

The change in the mood of the party can be summed up by the activist who rang me earlier in the day as it became obvious the party was trying to unite behind Mr Howard. "It feels as if a great weight has been lifted off my shoulders." That was no reference to IDS, but to the plotting and sub-plotting that has so damaged the Tories of late.

It was to this activist and the thousands of others that Michael Howard said: "In the contemporary Conservative Party that we forge, there will be no place for ancient feuds or rankling discord."

To which Suffolk Coastal's John Gummer said: "Sanity has broken out in the Conservative Party."

If Michael Howard really does deliver unity, it will be a miracle that 24 hours earlier seemed totally unobtainable. Should he be declared leader on Thursday, Britain may once again have what it has so lacked since 1997 - an opposition capable and ready to take on the Government.


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