Sat, Nov 01, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Tories close ranks behind Howard

OLD HANDAs the former minister lobbied for the leadership of the Conservative party, supporters trumpeted his experience while critics warned of his lack of popular appeal


Former hard-line Conservative government minister Michael Howard made a bid for the leadership of his ailing party Thursday, with a promise to "lead from the center" and offer a credible alternative to Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Senior Tories have united behind Blair's old adversary, in the hope that his incisive wit and gift for oratory will revive the once-mighty party's sagging fortunes.

"We will expose the govern-ment's failures, not with gleeful pleasure in seeing them fail, but because we urgently want things to be better for our fellow citizens," Howard told a news conference, to roars of approval from party acti-vists.

"I will lead this party from its center. I will call on the talents of all in the party, and the party will expect all to answer the call."

The party's bespectacled treasury spokesman said Tories should not be afraid to "make the case for lower taxes."

But projecting a modern, inclusive image for the traditionalist party, he also promised to help the poorest in society.

Howard, 62, formally announced his candidacy the day after Tory lawmakers tossed aside their old leader, Iain Duncan Smith, in a secret ballot. Many lawmakers were angry that in his two years as leader Duncan Smith had failed to mount a credible challenge to Blair, despite the government's woes over the unpopular war in Iraq.

But Howard, an intelligent and articulate Cambridge-educated lawyer, is seen as capable of taking on Blair and resuscitating the party.

The Conservatives, once led by the imposing figures of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, governed Britain for most of the 20th century. But since being swept from power by Blair's Labor Party in 1997, they have been riven by factionalism and internecine squabbling.

Howard emerged as a favorite to replace Duncan Smith on Wednesday after senior party figures said they would not seek the leadership and would support him. Lawmakers are eager to avoid a protracted and divisive leadership battle.

In what appeared to be a gesture toward unifying the party, Howard said he would meet later Thursday with former Treasury chief Kenneth Clarke, a favorite of moderates.

"We will be discussing the best way that we can work together for the future of our party," Howard said.

As a junior minister of the Thatcher government, and Britain's top law enforcement official under Prime Minister John Major, Howard was regarded as a tough, right-wing traditionalist.

Since then he appears to have softened. He promised Thursday to push ahead with centrist polices, many forged under Duncan Smith, and communicate them better to the public.

"Britain offered me a ladder to climb, and put the first rung within my reach," said Howard, whose father was a Romanian Jewish shopkeeper who emigrated to Britain in 1939.

Blair said Thursday he welcomed the prospect of Howard's selection as Tory leader, and looked forward to facing his "old adversary."

Although widely respected by his parliamentary colleagues, critics say that Howard lacks warmth and would not appeal to the wider voting public.

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