The members of the Conservative Party have got used to being occupants of the shadow cabinet room. They entered the room a while ago and nobody expects them to leave it soon despite a change in leadership. Mr Michael Howard was his party’s unanimous choice as leader. He might find this elevation without opposition more of a liability than an asset. There are reasons to suspect that the mantle of leadership has fallen upon him because of the paucity of talent in the Tory ranks. Yet unanimity carries with it the burden of expectation and enhanced responsibility. Mr Howard has good reasons to feel lonely and uneasy wearing the Tory crown. His first task will be to reinvent a new agenda for his party since New Labour has run away with the Tory sails. He also has to refurbish his party’s image. Increasingly, the Conservative party is being seen as a country party much as it was in its original incarnation. The legacy of Ms Margaret Thatcher seems to be a part of a very distant and irredeemable past. Mr Howard, because he is an intelligent and a realistic person, has recognized the onerous nature of the task before him. He is aware that it is going to be a “long, hard slog” before the Conservatives can come to even a sniffing distance of power. An opinion poll only confirms this.
Mr Howard’s first challenge was the formation of the shadow cabinet. He has reduced the size of this from 26 to 12. His predeccessor’s cabinet had a secretary of state for work and pensions and also a minister for work and pension. This kind of thing had reduced Mr Iain Duncan Smith’s shadow cabinet to an uncontrollable farce. Mr Howard’s team is without fat. This will make for more unity of purpose and for greater authority. The gains are offset, however, by a possible increase in the number of disgruntled elements. Members without a place in the shadow cabinet might well make Mr Howard’s task more difficult. The appointment which is sure to create controversy is that of Mr Tim Yeo who holds the brief for both health and education. Mr Howard’s critics will inevitably point out that this reflects the Tory neglect and disdain of public services. This can only be seen as a revival of aspects of Thatcherism at a time when the entire social and economic context in which Thatcherism triumphed has undergone a transformation. Tories will not return to power by reinventing the wheel. The Tory party has to radically reinvent itself. Ms Thatcher succeeded because she managed to do precisely that. This is the real nature of the challenge before Mr Howard.