MICHAEL HOWARD: “If you’re really politically ambitious, you’d probably go to Oxf*rd.”
Former Conservative leader and Union President Michael Howard talks Peterhouse, Politics, and THAT Paxman interview
As Michael Howard walks into the Mountbatten Room, he seems every inch an archetypal Tory peer, wearing a relaxed-fitting suit, and cracking a relaxed-sounding joke before he sits down for interviews.
But appearances can be deceiving because the former Conservative Party leader’s journey was anything but archetypal.
Michael Hecht was born into a modest family in Gorseinon, South Wales. His parents were both first generation Jewish immigrants, and his name was naturalised to Howard at the age of six when his parents became British subjects. Despite his European heritage, he identifies as British and was a strong advocate for Brexit.
Asked about rising rates of racially motivated crime after the referendum, he gives a collected and unemotional response in an almost-Welsh accent. “The figures are very suspect. An analysis of the figures a couple of months ago on Radio Four came to the conclusion that the spike attributed to Brexit isn’t anything like as marked [as some have suggested]. I very much doubt you can establish a link.”
Brexit talk continues for a while. I ask Lord Howard for his take on Theresa May’s criticism of “the unelected House of Lords” blocking Brexit, and I’m surprised to hear he is in fact an advocate of an elected, accountable upper chamber.
After grammar school he gained a place at Peterhouse to study economics, and eventually reached the top of the greasy pole to become President of the Cambridge Union.
From here things stalled. Cambridge and political careers don’t always go together. As he says, “if you’re really keenly politically ambitious, you probably go to Oxford.” However, whilst other members of the ‘Cambridge Mafia’, a stellar generation of Cambridge-educated Tories made a quick transition into Westminster, Howard was 42 by the time he entered the Commons, over 20 years after graduating.
“To be perfectly honest I had more or less given up, I was concentrating on my career at the bar and I was quite surprised when I was selected.” This is what I liked about Lord Howard. As the last dregs of the career-politician generation slip through the Westminster gutter, there’s something of an underdog about him, one that accepts the rough-and-tumble of political life, with its ups and downs.
A particular political “down” was his interview with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight in 1997. With Howard campaigning for party leadership, a scandal emerged around the sacking of prison chief Derek Lewis when Howard had been Home Secretary.
The details of the incident are now irrelevant, but what’s been remembered is Paxman asking Howard “did you threaten to overrule him (Lewis)” a grand total of 14 times.
Although he is less than impressed when I ask him the same question, his retrospective on the incident is surprisingly honest. “I should have done it differently. It came at the end of a long day when I had been campaigning for the leadership. I knew every word I uttered about the sacking of Derek Lewis would be crawled over a million times and so I was desperate not to say anything which conflicted with anything I had said before.”
But why 14 times, I ask. “It’s not unusual for politicians to dodge questions” Howard admits. “The reason he asked 14 times was that the next guest hadn’t turned up and so the producer was ordering Jeremy to just keep going.”
Politics away from the front line suits Howard, and has certainly allowed him to let his guard down compared with that Newsnight interview twenty years ago. Reflecting on this PR disaster, he cheekily suggests that “it actually did me a great favour, because obviously it damaged my prospects of winning that leadership election, which was a very good election to lose. No one was the slightest bit interested in the Conservatives, it was Tony Blair in his absolute pomp.”
This reference to the Conservatives’ time in the political wilderness draws an ironic parallel with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. The Q&A session with Howard at the Union that evening featured one or two CUCA members (“in their absolute pomp”) feeling rather smug about Labour’s impending doom. But Howard is too clever for this. He knows that heydays come and go, and that Labour might not be a spent force.
Although undoubtedly driven and at times ruthless, there is nothing brash or arrogant about Lord Howard. All in all, for a politician who struggled with public image, he is an incredibly likeable man.
If there is indeed “something of the night about him”, this is only because he struggles with the spotlight.