Observer review: In Search of Michael Howard by Michael Crick

Michael Crick's shrewd, finely researched biography, In Search of Michael Howard, points out the many contradictions that form the Tory leader, says Peter Preston

In Search of Michael Howard
by Michael Crick
Simon & Schuster £20, pp514

This is a shrewd, diligent, wonderfully readable search. It displays Michael Crick at his best, not just as a voracious digger for facts, but also as an analyst with a subtle political brain. Pre-election quickie biographies have never had it so good. And yet, in the end, do we really feel we know Michael Howard? Has the searcher made sense of his subject? Not quite. The Tory old stager who would be Prime Minister remains oddly elusive, a Conservative chameleon to the last.

Is he chilly, secretive, fatally light on people skills? Crick's witnesses queue up to tell us so. 'Michael is withdrawn, remote, a very reserved person,' says Peter Thurnham, his former parliamentary private secretary. 'He didn't want to open up to me in any shape or form ... Michael is out for himself.' Yet this same Howard fell in love with a three-times married woman (and model) so passionately that he bowed right out of politics for a while to make sure that her fourth marriage worked.

Is he calculating, always scheming to find room at the top? That daring wooing of Sandra Paul says not; so do his frequent explosions of political fury, cold turned white hot in an instant. Goodbye Derek Lewis, head of the Prison Service, shunted in a red mist for no very convincing political reason. Hello Ann Widdecombe, singing Something of the Night. Goodbye Howard Flight, dumped with reckless abandon from a great height.

If these, like many eruptions besides, were mere cynical calculations, then they weren't very good ones. Indeed, Howard often does not seem much of a politician at all. When, clambering back up the greasy poll after his marriage sabbatical, he tried to find a winnable seat to fight, he was rebuffed 40 times over. He didn't just lose to John Major in Huntingdon, he lost to Matthew Parris in west Derbyshire and Tim Smith in Beaconsfield.

He was a confirmed loser, the most sluggardly of his Cambridge set. And when, at long last, he spurted alongside Ken Clarke, Norman Lamont and the rest, he still proved the most bungling of plotters. Who'd run a 1997 leadership campaign out of Jonathan Aitken's front parlour when Aitken was heading for the law courts (and prison) almost simultaneously? What wizard skills saw him finish fifth out of five, beaten by John Redwood and William Hague?

Then there's Howard the thinker and a blank sheet where vision ought to be. At university, he was almost a Labour supporter. Running the Bow Group, he was a devout pro-European. Then - for reasons Crick can't nail down - he became more and more Eurosceptic, more the gay-bashing, prison-toting darling of the party conference right. Except that today the neocons in the White House won't let him through the door and the snarls of Section 28, like many other Howard crusades, are recanted in the cause of kinder, gentler times.

Perhaps Crick is right. Perhaps Howard and Tony Blair are two barrister peas from the same ideological pod, good at forensic argument and Oxbridge Union jibes, but dogma lite, blowing with the winds whenever they change. Yet that, too, doesn't altogether explain Howard's allegiance to the losing causes of independent central banking and IDS; and nor does it fit with his dogged brokering of a Rio environmental summit treaty when the Americans were pulling out their usual rugs.

Howard is more than a brilliant debater. He has achievements on his record, as well as poll tax disasters. He can be loyal to relatives and friends - in Liverpool, for instance, when he might have given his trouble-prone cousin Simon Bakerman's family a wide berth - as well as ruthlessly dismissive. He genuinely didn't expect this last chance at a place in the sun. His love of unlikely things - watching football on the terraces of Anfield, the music of the Beatles and Bryan Adams - isn't confected. There is something of the daylight about him, too.

No Crick book would be complete, of course, without a quota of revelations. But the ones that seek headlines here are also shot through with paradox. Howard's dad - Bernat Hecht - came from Ruscova, a remote sliver of Romania that passed to Hungary during the war. Bernat, though, didn't flee for his life in 1938, a Jew seeking asylum. He came for a job in a Whitechapel synagogue, as near to an economic migrant as made no difference; and Michael's grandfather, Morris, was an illegal immigrant, living quietly in north London for years while his family told the authorities that he was dead.

This isn't the surest platform for present campaigns about immigration. It does not square, factually or emotionally, with Howard the hammer of asylum seekers and proponent of Aussie-rules repatriation. Some of his more recent panegyrics to the 'British dream' emerge curdled and oleaginous.

Yet Crick, unlike his subject, never gets angry. He tries to balance undoubted ability - in the law, in housing policy, in ways of cutting crime that Straw and Blunkett aped - against the poll tax and prison blunders. He compiles a truly balanced balance sheet. Is that enough as a voter briefing, a preparation for power? It's the best he - or surely anyone - can do, a gallant attempt to meld Dracula and sugared Disney worlds into one. So on to the polls ... read now, while stocks and relevance last.


Peter Preston

The GuardianTramp

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