Veteran lawmaker to lead British Conservatives

Howard named in hopes of weakening Labor's grip

November 07, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LONDON - Britain's quarrelsome opposition Conservatives united yesterday to name veteran lawmaker Michael Howard as their new leader in hopes of ending years of infighting and of mounting a serious challenge to Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Howard, 62, a member of the Conservative governments of former Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major, was declared the winner when nominations to the post closed at midday with no challengers having come forth.

Born in Wales and educated at Cambridge, he is the son of Romanian-born immigrants. He is the first Jew to lead the Tories, with the exception of Benjamin Disraeli (who was of Jewish heritage but was baptized in the Church of England) in the 19th century. While Howard's experience in government has gained him respect as a political heavyweight, it has also earned him a reputation for being steely and distant as a policy-maker.

He is known as a combative politician who frequently got the better of Blair in parliamentary debate when he was home secretary and Blair was his opponent, or "shadow," in the parlance of British politics.

The selection of Howard ended tumultuous weeks of plotting and maneuvering that led to the ouster of the former leader, Iain Duncan Smith, eight days ago and spared the party a bruising elimination process and a subsequent runoff among the party's 300,000 members.

In his first remarks to party members as their leader, Howard sought to capitalize on this outbreak of internal peace. "If we are to win, we must work together as a team, we must rediscover the virtues of mutual support and friendship," he said. There was no room, he added, for "bystanders and snipers from the sidelines."

The Conservatives, once the dominant party in British politics, have been a distant second in the polls for a decade and suffered overwhelming defeats to the Labor Party in the elections of 1997 and 2001.

Various polls show them to be from five points behind to even with Labor at a time when they should be at least 20 points ahead to have a chance of winning in the next election, expected in 2005.

No opposition party in British history has ever overturned a parliamentary majority the size of Labor's current one in just one election, and Howard is consequently seen as someone whose success will be measured by how well the Tories can cut into the Labor margin.

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