The NS Interview - Michael Howard

The Tory leader says Blair lied about Iraq and argues that Labour's core beliefs make it powerless t

I am not sure if there is such a person as a floating New Statesman voter. I am even less sure that he or she might fall into the warm embrace of Michael Howard. Still, I ask the Conservative leader what he has to offer to them. He begins his pitch with health and education. Tony Blair, he says, has failed to deliver. "We can argue whether things are worse, the same or slightly better, but there has clearly not been the step change which we were led to believe would follow from the infusion of the undoubtedly large sums of money which the government has put in." Everyone, he adds, wants the best local school and hospital. "You have to ask yourself: why has that not happened? I would argue that NS readers must now accept that monopoly, which is the enemy of high standards in every field of human endeavour, has bedevilled the efforts of this government . . . so we need to introduce the forces that have driven up standards in every field."

Choice is the instant panacea all parties have conjured. Howard says his is the genuine article and that he alighted first on the idea of foundation hospitals. "We started off by going to Spain. We liked what we saw, and we came back and we said this would be a good thing to introduce into the UK. Tony Blair and Alan Milburn echoed our plans. But they were incapable of delivering it. Because of the Labour Party and Gordon Brown, they came back with a pale pink imitation." This argument over choice, access and equity, I suggest, is a dividing line between left and right. Howard becomes passionate, shedding the recently honed purr of the village doctor. "No, absolutely not," he says. "It shouldn't be a 'left-right' issue; it should be a 'how do we get the highest standards' issue." He continues: "The left, I fear, is still so blinkered by ideology that it can't see it. If you think that this is the way to drive up standards - and clearly there are a lot of people who are not Conservatives who think it is - the truth is, there's only one party that can deliver that agenda, not because we do have an ideological hang-up, but because we don't."

I ask him about the Tory legacy. Is there anything about Thatcherism that he regrets? "Of course we made mistakes. Every politician makes mistakes," he says, but: "I don't think the mistakes that were made derived from our ideology." The real problem was that "we often used the wrong language". He explains: "In 1979, the country was in a state of terrible crisis and needed shock treatment. Part of the shock treatment was stark language that was necessary in order to get the country to see the kind of difficulties it faced and the kind of unpleasant medicine which had to be administered. But that language lingered on far longer than it should have done and contributed quite significantly to the fact that we were seen as harsh and uncaring."

So, for all his condemnation of spin, it seems that Margaret Thatcher's problems all came down to presentation. Howard dismisses the idea that the Tories were responsible for the fracturing of communities. "One of the remarkably little-known facts of the Thatcher era was voluntary activity, which soared during the 1980s - it went up by more than 20 per cent. There is no more explicit manifestation of a sense of community than the number of people who engage in voluntary activity."

On issues such as law and order and asylum, any thoughts of the Tories taking a softer approach have been firmly banished. Howard's recent barrage of announcements is designed to show that there is nothing Blair can do to out-tough him. I ask him about the prison population, which is at a record high: "If that is the way in which people in this country can be protected from crime, and it is an important element in protecting people - not the only one, obviously - then so be it," he says. "The evidence is now overwhelming that a relatively small number of persistent criminals create a hugely disproportionate number of crimes, and there are more of them than the current prison population. So if you were able to imprison those people, the difference in the crime rate would be very considerable."

Howard rejects accusations that once again his party is retreating to its "core" voters, claiming that the Conservatives now have more members than Labour and the Liberal Democrats put together. He pledges: "The Conservative Party in parliament will look significantly different after the next election." We shall see. So what is his bottom line? Howard describes as "absolute nonsense" any idea that the Liberal Democrats could overtake the Tories and beat them into third place. He has only one target. "Victory. It's the only thing I'm interested in. I'm not in this job to reduce Labour's majority or anything like that."

We turn to Iraq. The war, he says, will play "a large part in the verdict people give". He notes: "There are a lot of people who were completely opposed to the war. Many of them were Labour supporters and voters, and they won't vote for Labour again for that reason. They won't necessarily vote for us, but they won't vote Labour. Iraq has been the catalyst for the distrust with which people regard the present government. I think people hold the view pretty firmly now that they were lied to over Iraq. I don't think that's the only thing they think they were lied to about . . . but Iraq is the great catalyst for loss of trust in the government."

Does he believe the British people were lied to? "Over Iraq? Yes." It is not every day that the leader of Her Majesty's loyal opposition accuses the Prime Minister of lying, so I seek to clarify: "Tony Blair lied to them?" Howard responds with a simple: "Yes." When? "Notably when he had intelligence, as is set out in full in the Butler report, which was hedged with qualifications, caveats, warnings, which he translated into certainty. That was the unambiguous evidence that he put to the country." Maybe Blair just got it wrong? "I gave him the opportunity to put an alternative explanation on a number of occasions and I have said that if he were able to provide another explanation I would be prepared probably to accept it. He has conspicuously failed to do that." If that is the case, how could Blair stay in his job? There must surely be consequences? "There should, but that's not the way our system works. He's got a big majority and I don't think we can keep debating it."

Does he regret the Tories' original decision to support the war? "I still think it was the right thing to do," he says. "The world is a better place without Saddam Hussein, who was a threat to the peace of the region - but I believe it is possible to be in favour of the war and in favour of telling the truth. Secondly, we said at the time that you have to have a plan for what comes afterwards. Tony Blair was in a great position of influence and he should have insisted on a plan. If we had had a proper plan we wouldn't now be in such serious difficulties as we are."

This is all very confusing. If Blair "lied" but the Tories were still right to support the war, what exactly is Howard's accusation? "I think Tony Blair may well have believed that there were WMDs in Iraq at the time. That does not [of itself] mean that he lied. My accusation against him relies on the fact that he was given intelligence which was full of qualifications and when he relayed that intelligence to the British people he left out those qualifications, and conveyed the impression that there was no doubt at all that there were WMDs in Iraq."

Howard insists that British forces must stay. "We've got to see it through." Yet, at the same time, he is sceptical of Blair's recent plea for unity and for everyone to forget what happened on the road to war: "He's unlikely to succeed in that endeavour." This balancing act, hovering between criticism and support, leaves many Tories frustrated. I ask him about his spat with the White House, when he was told by Bush's people that he would not be welcome after calling into question Blair's handling of the war. Howard responded at the time by giving as good as he got. "I believe we benefit greatly from our alliance with the US. They are our closest ally. I am sure I would be able to continue that good relationship with either President Bush or President Kerry. But that doesn't mean that we should unquestioningly go along with everything the US wants to do. It's very important that Britain plays the role of the candid friend, and that when it disagrees with America it says so. I make my judgements on the basis of what I think are the best interests of this country. And when I've made my judgements I'm certainly not going to be told by anybody else what to do. That's what I said at the time. That's the way I'd deal as prime minister, too."

He leaves me with the intriguing, and still very hypothetical, thought of a Conservative British prime minister standing up to a conservative American president.