Lord Howard: a long career at the pinnacle of politics


On a Thursday evening in February, I enter Hotel Indigo to have a drink with Lord Howard, one of the great political heavyweights of British history, having been Home Secretary during the 1990s and Leader of the Conservative Party during a crucial period in the early 2000s, among other key roles. Throughout our interview, he is far from a grey face from Britain’s political past, rather, he is a sharp, humorous, and thoroughly engaging individual, marked by honesty about both his successes and failures.

Howard only really got the politics bug at Cambridge, where he was part of the ‘Cambridge Mafia’, a group of students who would later become prominent Conservative Party politicians, including Howard, Norman Fowler, Kenneth Clarke, Leon Brittan, and others.

Unlike other members, Howard took a decade longer to be elected, becoming a barrister, but eventually reached Parliament in 1983. Central to Howard’s rapid rise the ranks of government was, in his view, “trial and error”, in the face of being initially demoralised because “I remember standing around members’ lobby on the first day, looking around and thinking I’ve probably made the most ghastly mistake, because I’m never going to make any kind of an impression when there are all these young, keen, thrusting people around.”

I was more interested in getting things done and in doing things

The first political challenge Howard faced was being an MP, having been elected to the Kent constituency of Folkestone and Hythe. Howard is in love with his constituency. He tells me, quite simply, that “it’s a wonderful constituency.” I myself am fond of the coastal Dungeness area of Howard’s constituency, which I have visited a number of times with my grandparents who also hail from Kent, and I am delighted to learn that Howard is also fond of this area. Dungeness is very poor, and, more generally, “there was and still is some considerable deprivation, particularly in parts of Folkestone, but then there’s Hythe, which is a fairly prosperous retirement town, and there are some very pretty villages in the Elham Valley and then there’s Romney Marsh, which is itself a mix.”

Howard cared about his constituency, and this was central to his career. But the story does not end here. Howard rose to become a major public figure. But the ‘public figure’ side of things was not something Howard considers himself to have been terribly good at. “One of the things I wasn’t as good at as I should have been was presentation. I was more interested in getting things done and in doing things and I should have paid much more attention to presentation than I did. So, I wasn’t especially interested in the public figure side of things, I was really interest in government.”

From 1993 until 1997, Howard took on one of the toughest roles in government: Home Secretary. For someone who was not so keen on being a public figure, this was one of the most public offices of them all. The Home Office is, Howard says, different, since “every minister makes mistakes, and in most departments, there’s quite a good chance the mistake you make will have been some dark hidden corner, and nobody would notice. There are no dark hidden corners in the Home Office […] If you make a mistake, everyone is going to know about it.” Added to this, the Home Office was far larger in Howard’s day, including being responsible for justice.

Despite the intensity of the role, with Howard noting his unsatisfactory sleep schedule during this time, he is overall pleased with the work he did as Home Secretary. Even though he was told, immediately upon appointment, about the impossibility of keeping crime numbers down, Howard was intent on controlling it. “A million fewer crimes a year were being committed when I left than when I arrived, so yeah, I think I made a difference.”

Including Howard, over the past year, I have spoken to three former leaders of each of the three major parties. Something I have always been fascinated by has been how each one once considered themselves suitable for the role of Prime Minister, the highest and most difficult job in the land. When asked how Howard knew he would be suitable, he simply mentioned that you must “have the confidence to think you can do it… If you’ve been Home Secretary for four years, and you think you’ve done it reasonably well, I think you think you could probably be Prime Minister.” Thus, it is a question of mentality, for Howard. He was driven to the leadership by a fundamentally necessary self-confidence, which, in Howard’s view, was not coloured by delusion, but founded on a track record which involved being Home Secretary as well as having other Cabinet roles.

You only have one aim when you become Leader of the Opposition, which is to become Prime Minister

 When we discuss his leadership of the party, which lasted from him 2003 until 2005, Howard is quick to point out that “I failed.” Despite his work for the party, “you only have one aim when you become Leader of the the Opposition, which is to become Prime Minister, so I failed […] There are some subsidiary aims, but that is the overriding aim.” The brutal honesty with which Howard states his failure is admirable. As leader of his party, he sees himself to blame, and takes accountability.

Maybe Howard is a little harsh on himself, for it is clear that he achieved certain “subsidiary aims,” preparing the way for Cameron. But Howard is right, the Labour Party’s dominance was difficult to dislodge. Howard attributes this partially to the fact that “the economy seemed to be in pretty good shape”, so it was difficult to persuade the public that things would soon go wrong. On top of this, Howard faced “a very formidable political operator” in Tony Blair, adding to the burden of being leader.

Howard’s optimism shines through during the interview. Despite little prospect of winning the 2005 General Election, “you’ve got to think you can win, I think, and I didn’t think I would win, but I thought I could win, and I went into it with that frame of mind.” Likewise, during his address at the Durham Union, Howard refuses to drown in defeatism, unwilling to declare that Labour will win the next election. Therefore, optimism is a key attribute of Howard’s approach to politics, and something that contributed to his suitability as leader.

This said, Howard’s optimism does not mean he believes in fairytales. He is clear that the Conservatives find themselves in a difficult situation, and he puts a lot of this down to “three almost unprecedented challenges” that have emerged since 2010, which were the aftermath of the financial crisis, the pandemic, and now the crisis in Ukraine. Howard is therefore sympathetic towards Sunak’s situation. “I think it’s very tough for them.”

Naturally, talk of such an intense job raises questions about how much leisure time Howard could enjoy. The answer was, of course, very little. Howard jokes that “one morning I woke up, and I’m quite interested in racing, and I said to my wife, ‘It’s derby day today and I don’t even know the name of the favourite.’” Howard is, therefore, a keen watcher of sport, especially a loyal fan of Liverpool Football Club. His football knowledge is perfect, and he commends the success of my local club, Brentford, who are due to meet Liverpool a few days after our interview.

Since retiring from leadership, Howard has had the time to enjoy himself. “I quite enjoyed the remainder of that parliament on the backbenches [2005-10], and I’ve got no complaints about life now. I can watch much more football and do things that I enjoy doing. And I do turn up at the Lords and I do speak from time to time.” Finally, and most importantly I am sure, “I have learned to play bridge, which I now play quite a lot. So, I have no complaints really.”

“No complaints” sums up a lot of Howard’s character, since, with throughout his time with me and at the Union, he was visibly happy to be speaking and making contributions. Likewise, his perspective on the past is not one of bitterness, but of measured contemplation of what happened. Howard’s kindness shined through all our interactions. Hopefully, politicians of today will take note and become more like this.

Image: Roger Harris via Wikimedia Commons

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