LONDON — British politics just got a lot more interesting. After six years of uncanny good luck, facing only the most lackluster competition, Prime Minister Tony Blair suddenly has a serious opponent — and just at the moment when he has begun to feel vulnerable. Britain’s Conservative Party, in the doldrums since 1997, has anointed a new leader. He is sharp, smart and said to strike fear in the prime minister. To cap it all, he is a Jew.
The contender is Michael Howard. At 62 he is no rising star, but that rare creature on the Tory benches in the House of Commons today: a man of gravitas and experience. He served throughout the almost two decades when the Conservatives ruled Britannia, an era dominated by Margaret Thatcher.
Which is why Howard is sending shivers down the Blairite spine. Ever since the landslide that carried Blair’s Labour Party into Downing Street six years ago, the prime minister has been playing on a near-empty field: The opposition has been barely visible.
Now, however, after six years of being led in turn by two untelegenic and widely mocked parliamentarians — first William Hague, then Iain Duncan Smith — the Conservatives seem to have decided to break their losing streak. Instead of staging a leadership contest that fast collapses into a round of internal bloodletting, the Tories have rallied around a single candidate: Howard, it appears, will be elected unopposed in the coming days. And instead of choosing the leader for the soundness of his views on the hot-button question for Tory activists — opposition to further British integration into the European Union — they have opted for someone who might land some punches on Tony Blair.
Howard’s pugilistic credentials are plentiful. He was a bruiser in the last Conservative administration, heading up Britain’s Home Office — the ministry responsible for policing, prisons and the like. He never courted popularity; on the contrary, he reveled in his tough-as-nails image. “I know what causes crime,” he bellowed once, mocking the bleeding-heart liberals who look for the root causes of lawbreaking. “I’ll tell you what causes crime: criminals!”
A former barrister — one of the class of bewigged lawyers allowed to appear in court — Howard delighted in outraging liberal former colleagues in the legal profession. He wanted tougher sentencing, locking up ever greater numbers of felons under the slogan, “Prison works.” And he restricted the right to silence of criminal suspects.
Howard also courted controversy by moving to make Britain less open to refugees seeking asylum. Opponents charged hypocrisy, noting that Howard’s own father, an Orthodox cantor then named Bernat Hecht, had fled to Britain following the Nazi invasion of his native Romania.
What Blair most fears, however, is Howard’s forensic prowess as a debater. When Labour was out of power, Blair was Howard’s shadow at the Home Office and found him a hard act to match. Blair is a practiced Commons performer now, but he used to be uneven: Howard would often best him on the chamber floor.
Now that dexterity could be more relevant than ever, for Blair is in trouble. The polls barely show it, since the Conservatives under Duncan Smith were far more unpopular than Labour, but the government’s troubles run deep. Blair is no longer trusted by the electorate, and the explanation can be reduced to a single word: Iraq.
Opposition to the war was and is colossal in Britain, and Blair’s support for it incensed people here. More than 2 million people converged on London to march against the war in February, the biggest political demonstration in British history. Most continue to believe Blair was too arrogant to listen. Surveys show that most Britons reckon Blair lied to justify the war, chiefly by exaggerating the threat from Iraq.
All this will come to a head later this year with the report of a judicial inquiry, headed by Lord Hutton, into the death of former U.N. weapons inspector and government scientist David Kelly. Kelly is thought to have taken his own life after being “outed” as the source of a BBC story claiming that the government had “sexed up” its dossier on the Iraqi threat. The Hutton report is expected to go to the heart of Blair’s case for war — and the government’s honesty in making it. It could be devastating, and it will be Howard who takes on Blair in the subsequent Commons debate.
Howard is no anti-American, and he was for the war, but the honesty issue will give him his opening. That prospect is getting Blairites twitchy.
Meanwhile, British Jewry is watching events unfold with a wary pride. They’re thrilled that one of their own has made it to the top in politics, the first Jewish leader of one of the two main parties (unless you count the 19th-century Tory premier Benjamin Disraeli, who was born a Jew but baptized into Christianity as a child). But they worry, as American Jews did at the thought of Vice President Lieberman in 2000, about attracting too much attention.
Even before he emerged as the leader of the opposition, some Jews detected an undercurrent of antisemitism in invective directed at Howard by his foes. “There is something of the night about him,” said Ann Widdecombe, a fellow Conservative who feuded with Howard when she served under him at the Home Office in the 1990s. That comment sank Howard’s last attempt at the Tory leadership in 1997 and haunts him still. Jews sniffed an anti-Jewish undercurrent in Widdecombe’s quip — as they do in the cartoonists’ regular rendering of him as a Dracula-like vampire. The caricaturists say they are merely referring to Howard’s roots in the Transylvanian region of Romania; Jews suspect otherwise.
Howard makes an unlikely poster boy for Anglo Jewry. His wife is not Jewish; his son is an evangelical Christian who made waves at Oxford by targeting Jews for conversion. Howard himself is an occasional worshipper at a Liberal London synagogue (the British equivalent of American Reform Judaism), but has only slim links to the organized community.
There is no doubt that his elevation represents a change for the Jews, for the Conservatives and for British politics. A complex man, he has just made our national life a whole lot more interesting.
Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for The Guardian of London and is currently working on a book about Israel, Jewishness and belonging.