- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 30, 2003

LONDON — Michael Howard, an eloquent debater and former law-and-order home secretary, emerged yesterday as the favorite to lead the Conservative Party and eventually mount a challenge to Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Under Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservatives supported President Bush and Mr. Blair in their war against Saddam Hussein, and there is no indication that Mr. Howard, 62, would depart from the party’s support of the military campaign after Mr. Duncan Smith’s ouster.

With Mr. Blair struggling against charges that the government misused intelligence on Saddam’s illicit arsenal, Mr. Howard is regarded as the best man to take advantage of the government’s sagging popularity.

“He is a man of enormous experience. He is a political heavyweight. We certainly know that he can land a few blows on Tony Blair,” said Liam Fox, the party’s spokesman on health issues.

Mr. Howard, a Cambridge-educated lawyer, is reputedly the only person in the Conservatives’ upper echelons whom Mr. Blair respects as an orator. The two had many bruising encounters when Mr. Blair was Labor Party spokesman on law and order and Mr. Howard served as home secretary.

Mr. Blair said yesterday he welcomed the prospect of Mr. Howard’s selection as Tory leader.

Asked if he was looking forward to the challenge, Mr. Blair said: “I am actually, because what it will do is make the choice far more real for people and also far more stark,” the prime minister told the British Broadcasting Corp.

Mr. Duncan Smith, who failed to improve the poll standings of the once-mighty party during his two years as leader, was ousted Wednesday in a secret ballot of Tory members of Parliament.

Mr. Howard emerged as a favorite successor after senior party figures said they would not seek the leadership and would support him.

Factionalism has riven the party since Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s 11-year rule ended in 1990, and lawmakers are eager to avoid a protracted and bloody leadership battle.

Although Mr. Howard is the consensus candidate and could stand unopposed, nominations do not close until Nov. 6, giving other hopefuls a week to decide whether to throw their hats into the ring.

The son of a Romanian Jewish shopkeeper who emigrated to Britain in 1939, Mr. Howard became a member of Parliament in 1983, and held a series of junior ministerial posts in Mrs. Thatcher’s government. Under Prime Minister John Major, he was promoted to the Cabinet, first as employment secretary and then responsible for the environment.

Mr. Howard made his mark as home secretary, Britain’s top law-enforcement official, from 1993 to 1997, overseeing a 15 percent reduction in crime.

Mr. Howard had ambitions of being Tory leader in 1997, when Mr. Major stepped down after a crushing election defeat by Mr. Blair’s Labor Party. But he finished last in that race.

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