When retreat looks like cowardice

IN the past couple of weeks, Michael Howard has made two embarrassing U-turns, casting doubts on his style of leadership which opponents are starting to brand "slippery.

IN the past couple of weeks, Michael Howard has made two embarrassing U-turns, casting doubts on his style of leadership which opponents are starting to brand "slippery."

The first was giving his total support to Euro MP Bashir Khanbhai, embroiled in a row over expenses claims, and then just five days later sitting back while the Board of the Party axed Khanbhai, the party's first-ever and still only Muslim MP or MEP, from the East region Euro list.

That gave the impression of, at best, muddle at the very top of the party and has allowed the MEP - he remains in office until the end of this month - to let rip with allegations of racism within the Conservatives.

Now Mr Howard has decided to distance the Tories from the Government over the quicksand that is Iraq. Lest he should forget - and his predecessor Iain Duncan Smith publicly reminded him this weekend in a not too thinly disguised attack - the House of Commons only approved support for the Government's invasion policy on the strength of the votes of the majority of Tory MPs. If the Conservatives had abstained, Mr Blair would have been defeated.

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IDS believes that was the right thing to do. Therefore the Iraq failure is just as much the fault of the Conservatives - although we should absolve Suffolk Coastal's John Gummer and former Chancellor Kenneth Clarke from the charge because they voted against.

The aftermath of the Iraq war is just as messy as those of us who opposed the invasion predicted it might be. What seems to have caused Michael Howard to change his mind are the grotesque photographs and videos of human rights abuses of Iraqi prisoners now coming out of the US. Mr Howard wants to ensure the Tories are not damaged electorally through guilt by association.

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Howard knows that with every day producing more appalling images - the modern day trophies of the victors - the more Labour's vote evaporates. He is desperate to stop it going to the Liberal Democrats or the UK Independence Party in next month's council and European elections.

Hence the change of heart. But even though I believe the Conservatives were wrong to support the Government's invasion policy, retreating in the face of the enemy is cowardice and Mr Howard should remember that. If you jump on bandwagons, you can easily fall under the wheels.

Former Labour minister Frank Field said on Sunday, acknowledging the Government faced a "grim" summer of electoral mayhem, that the Tories had not made the electoral headway they had expected under its new leader.

Mr Field said publicly what many strategists from the big three parties are privately fearing - that the UK Independence Party "will do well" in the June 10 elections. An opinion poll yesterday showed a surge in support for the party which wants to quit the EU.

In the East Midlands, where former TV presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk leads UKIP, there are predictions it could even top the poll giving it at least three MEPs.

Wouldn't that be one in the eye for Messrs Blair, Howard and Kennedy.

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