Saturday, February 12, 2005

Historical Echoes

BBC2 have just shown the Michael Cockerell 'fly-on-the-wall' documentary about Michael Howard. It didn't have the same feel as the remarkable gonzo job that BBC3 did on Robert Kilroy-Silk the other week, but that is because Howard and those around him are professional politicians. It was too obviously plotted to only deliver the story that they wanted us to see - but this is a reflection on the subject, rather than the documentary maker. Cockerell told us the rest of the story almost in spite of Michael Howard, rather than because of him.

An opportunity was missed to show us the real Michael Howard - although I liked the story about him proclaiming his lifelong support for Liverpool FC to a Liverpudlian Tory selection committee, only to be met with the silence of a roomful of Evertonians. We learned little about his life in Llanelli as a young member of an immigrant family, almost as if he prefers to be a little distanced from those roots - too humble for a Tory leader or not Prime Ministerial enough?

The programme also contained a number of references that students of politics should pick up on - the tour through the streets of Llanelli reminiscent of the John Major election broadcast where he returned to his family home in Brixton; the brief nod to Kinnock as the first in his family to go to university; the Blair-like proclamation of his love for the people's game of football. Everything seemed a little too forced, a little too prepared - a litle too lawyerly. The moments when we got to see Howard with ordinary people - in his constituency, in Llanelli and on the streets when confronted by an opponent of his policy on the war - showed him as incapable of connecting with them. Whatever you may think of Tony, he seems more at ease with normal folk.

We saw the infamous interview with Paxman (twelve times Howard dodged the 'Did you threaten to over-rule him?' question); conference speeches where he declared that 'prison works'; the mauling from Ann Widdecombe, which raised the issue of image. Here, the sensitivity came through. Rory Bremner's vampiric impression of Howard raised a forced smile (mustn't forget to have a sense of humour, Michael), but there was also sensitivity about his accent and the way that he says words like 'people' - he can't suppress the Welsh tones there.

Similarly forced were the moments with his staff and his committee of former Tory leaders - Major, Hague, Duncan-Smith and Clarke (apparently there because he stood so many times for the leadership that they felt he qualified). William Hague was relaxed and open with the camera, but they looked more like the White Star Line Deckchair Planning Committee than a group grooming the next Prime Minister. Ken Clarke tried to be positive in interview, but didn't seem to be filled with the certainty of victory and John Major looked a little embarrassed to be seen there (this is a man who had an affair with Edwina Currie).

Sadly, the film just reinforced the perceived wisdom about Howard. He isn't the man to lead the Tories back to power. People may not like Tony, but they like Michael even less. The Tories need a leader distanced from the Thatcher and Major years - perhaps someone who isn't yet elected to the House.

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