“I don’t think I would have prorogued parliament”: Former Tory leader Michael Howard on Boris Johnson

On his first day back in the House of Lords after the election, the Brexiteer and former Conservative leader talks Brexit, his party’s future, and the leadership of a man he once sacked.

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After Michael Howard led the Conservative Party to its third consecutive electoral defeat in 2005, he made his resignation speech in the newly won constituency of Putney. Fourteen years and four elections later, Putney was the one seat Labour gained in the 2019 general election.

The man who led the Tory party between 2003 and 2005 smiles at the parallel. Relaxing into a scratchy armchair in a House of Lords side room (Howard has been a peer since 2010), he reflects on what went wrong in his day.

“I was fighting Tony Blair, who had a huge majority, and the economy was in quite good shape, so it was difficult for an opposition to win,” he says.

Howard knows only too well the cut-throat nature of party politics, but has no illusions about Labour’s new position. “It would be good for democracy and for the country to have a credible opposition, but if Labour is to constitute that opposition, it has to have a different kind of leadership. I wouldn’t thrust that poisoned chalice on anyone!”

We meet on his first day back in Westminster, four days after the election. He was “quite nervous” on polling day and “did not think [the Tories] would get anything like as big a majority” as 80 seats.

Having represented Folkestone and Hythe in Kent from 1983 to 2010, Howard, who is 78, campaigned recently in the nearby constituencies of Hastings and Rye, and Canterbury. The Tories held the former and failed to gain the latter from Labour. They took 54 seats from Labour, mostly in constituencies across the North, the Midlands and Wales.

“The Conservative Party has always been a party of One Nation, but it’s been easy in the past to caricature us as a party of southern England and to castigate us for not having any representation in the North.”

Howard, who grew up in Llanelli, south Wales, says he “benefited enormously” from his grammar school education. At 15 he had the audacity to join the Young Conservatives in the Labour stronghold, and, perhaps more heretically, set up a football club at school in the land of rugby. He studied law at Cambridge, and a political career followed.

“Social mobility is something I care passionately about, and the key to social mobility is education. In terms of policy, things are better than they were, but we have got to do better. Education has to improve.”

As a Eurosceptic, Howard is optimistic about Britain’s economic prospects after it leaves the EU, but sees education as central to future national success. “Giving our kids a good start is one of the most important responsibilities of government.”

In a country where teachers are crowd-funding for materials, school buildings are crumbling and poorer pupils are twice as likely to fail key subjects at GCSE level, is the government up to that responsibility?

“I think they want to be,” Howard muses vaguely. “Austerity, which was necessary, has led to some painful consequences. I accept that. But I hope it will be possible now to remedy them.”

Howard campaigned to remain in the European Economic Community in the 1975 referendum, but changed his mind about staying in the bloc when David Cameron failed to strike a deal with the EU to give the UK special status with regards to immigration controls in 2016.

Endorsing the Leave campaign that same year, Howard wrote: “We must conduct this debate with courtesy and mutual respect.”

“Well, it didn’t work out quite like that!” he laughs, acknowledging that the tone of politics has turned nastier since his leadership. “Happily for me, social media was in its infancy in my time and I never had to bother about it, but it’s a different world now.”

Certain moments during the Brexit debate have concerned him: “I don’t think I would have prorogued parliament and with the benefit of hindsight I’m not sure the Prime Minister would’ve done it, because he didn’t really gain very much from it.” Howard was dismayed at John Major’s call for voters to back three ex-Tory rebels in the 2019 election. “I regretted that, I was very sad about that, because a lot of people were loyal to him even when they disagreed with him, and I think that was very sad and unfortunate,” he says of the former prime minister whom he served as Home Secretary in 1993-97.

As part of the so-called Cambridge Mafia of Tory politicians, Howard is unforgiving of those MPs such as friend and fellow member Ken Clarke who were expelled from the party in September 2019 for attempting to block a no-deal Brexit. “I was sad about it because many of them are friends of mine. But I also thought it was absolutely necessary.”

A stickler for party discipline, Howard sacked Boris Johnson, who was then shadow arts minister, from his front bench in 2004 for misleading him about an affair. Does he see a rogue in charge today? “I think I made a mistake in doing what I did then.”

Howard is “optimistic” about the UK negotiating a trade agreement with the EU by December 2020, although he accepts “there will be some compromises, inevitably”. Contradicting Johnson on a major sticking point of the current Brexit deal, Howard admits “there clearly will be some checks” on goods travelling between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. “We don’t know exactly what checks they’ll be, how many there will be, or where they will take place. But checks do not constitute a border.”

What of those “compromises” he envisages?

“The whole question of the extent to which we need to maintain regulatory alignment – it’s going to give rise to some thorny issues, and we have to see where it lands,” he replies, saying the key is for the UK to make its own trade agreements.

“It [the ability to make trade deals] rules out 100 per cent regulatory alignment, it doesn’t rule out all of regulatory alignment,” he adds.

Although he had been “rather sceptical” about Johnson’s chances of forging a new withdrawal agreement, Howard is “impressed” by his former troublesome shadow minister. He also foresees – in rather Panglossian tones – the global economy improving. “Napoleon talked about lucky generals, we seem to have acquired a lucky prime minister!”

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

This article appears in the 20 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Days of reckoning