‘Well my political career is over, so there’s no more dogging to be doing.’ DAVID HOLLAND steps into Paxo’s shoes to chat to everyone’s favourite question-dodger, MICHAEL HOWARD.
Known for his Romanian roots and the tendency to suck his victims (sorry, opponents) dry in political debates, Lord Michael Howard of Lympne, ex-Home Secretary, ex-Leader of the Opposition, has a long and somewhat ghoulish reputation preceding him. When Ann Widdecombe said in 1997, ‘there is something of the night about him’, the whole country nodded with her. But how does he feel about it in the very different atmosphere of 2011? Has this quote dogged his career? ‘Well, my political career is over, so there’s no more dogging to be doing. I have no idea what she meant by it; but it didn’t stop me becoming Leader of the Conservatives and Leader of the Opposition.’ This is the only time he becomes visibly tense.
When I met him at the Union bar, surrounded by a throng of both old and young Tories gaily chatting and sipping their drinks, the vampirish tendencies had seemingly disappeared with his political aspirations, to be replaced by a man who looked remarkably energetic and sprightly for his 69 years. So much so, in fact, that I ask him whether his 70th birthday party in July will be a Bacchic orgy worthy of Berlusconi. ‘I don’t think it’ll be a wild party, my wife has certain plans not all of which she has divulged to me so I think she’ll be in charge.’ His age, a sore point the media loved to scratch, was one of the key reasons he sighted for stepping down post-2005 election: ‘I banged on and on about responsibility… I fought the election and I lost, so if I was serious about accepting responsibility then this was right. A big element was age… someone like Cameron would have a much better chance of winning the next election than I would.’
Now retired from politics, the one thing Michael Howard is remembered for is that Jeremy Paxman interview. Asked the same question 14 times in a row without giving a straight answer, it made Paxman the king of political interviews and Howard a national laughing stock and an unlikely YouTube star. ‘He got an award for that interview and the prize was a bottle of champagne. I told him if he got the award I was entitled to the champagne. He duly sent me the bottle and I think we shared it. The funny thing about the interview, which no one really appreciates, is that the only reason he kept asking the question was because the next interviewee hadn’t turned up.’
We move on to talking about his time at Peterhouse, getting a 2:1 in an Economics Part I, then dropping to a 2:2 after switching to Law. ‘Distracted?’ That’s probably the kind explanation; the 2:1 was a bit of a con. Aside from studying I was heavily involved in the union and played a bit of football.’
When we think of the modern Conservative party in their university years the image that jumps into mind is of Boris and David quaffing Tattinger in the Bullingdon. I wanted to know if Howard’s Cambridge days were how many people inevitably envisage them. ‘There was a bit of high society living, I assume The Pitt is still going? I don’t imagine The Pitt was ever like the Bulingdon but there were a group of people called the Ice Cream boys who were rich and shot off to London all the time and had expensive cars. But, they didn’t go out to beat up the place. I knew some of them, but I didn’t hang around with them really. And I wasn’t a member of The Pitt.’
Coming from the humble background as the son of Romanian-born shop keeper it seems an unlikely move to leader of the Tories. He’s exactly the sort of person the left fear will be left without a degree following the rise in tuition fees.