London, Nov. 6 (Reuters): Britain’s opposition Conservative Party ushered in veteran former minister Michael Howard as its new leader today in an attempt to end years of in-fighting and mount a credible challenge to Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Michael Spicer, the senior Conservative who chairs the party’s committee of parliamentarians, said Howard had been unopposed and the deadline for nominations had passed.
The struggling party, once home to such greats as Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, ousted its ineffectual leader Iain Duncan Smith last week.
Howard, a Right-winger who has pledged to lead his party from the centre, said he would work tirelessly but demanded unity. “We are all crew on what, at its best, is the most superb campaigning vessel politics has ever known,” Howard said.
of his party, which ruled Britain for most of the 20th century.
”Our high and heavy duty is to ensure that as disillusion with Labour turns to dismay, we are there as the next government...united in our common goal.”
Blair has had a terrible year. His public trust ratings have plunged after waging war on Iraq and it was Duncan Smith's inability to take advantage of Blair's discomfort that finally cost him his job after two years as Conservative leader.
But analysts say although Howard's greater stature and sharpness in debate would test Blair more sternly than Duncan Smith did, he was unlikely to overturn Labour's electoral dominance in the 18 months or so before the next election.
His supporters believe he will succeed where Duncan Smith failed Ä holding Blair to account over anything from public services to the Iraq war, which most Britons opposed.
Howard was deeply unpopular with the public while in government in the 1990s. Blair's team has already started reminding Britons of his hardline track record as Home Secretary, suggesting they are more concerned about their new opponent than they ever were with Duncan Smith.
Howard is an undoubted political heavyweight who gave the young Blair a rough ride in parliament when the prime minister was an up-and-coming home affairs spokesman.
”People have really begun to see through Labour,” he said. ”Their trust ratings are way down. Their support levels are down. Tony Blair's own personal ratings are in tatters.”
With a massive majority in parliament, Blair is likely to condemn the Conservatives to a third successive election defeat, probably in 2005.
But if Howard can make serious inroads into Blair's majority, a return to power at the following election would become a serious possibility.