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Home > Politics

Michael Howard: Ringmaster of a grisly circus

5 June 2004

'Bandwagon' is defined as 'a popular trend that attracts growing support'. If you're interested in knowing where this familiar term originates, it refers to a large, ornate wagon that carries a musical band, as in: 'the gaudy bandwagon led the circus parade'.

Perhaps someone should tell Michael Howard. This week it was announced there'd be another hike in fuel duty, and therefore higher petrol and diesel prices. Howard, never one to miss a bandwagon, said he may well support future fuel protests.

The last fuel protests, lest we forget, involved angry hauliers trying to blockade various oil installations, both physically and with unoffical pickets, with the (semi-successful) goal of stopping the distribution of petrol. Another tactic was a 100-lorry 'go-slow' protest on the A1. The protests were initially supported by large sections of the public, but enthusiasm waned when - oh cruel irony! - they couldn't buy petrol and there were supermarket shortages.

It's good to know that Howard has such a genuine affinity with the haulage community. But it's also worth remembering that, like New Labour, the Tories love trying to exploit populist issues. The difference is that Blair has traditionally put forward populist policies which most or many people agree with in principle at least (clamping down on yobs, supporting the dear old NHS, fox hunting is cruel, etc.) while the Tories somehow seem to get it wrong every time. Enter Michael Howard, ringmaster of a grisly circus of minority interest pressure groups.

The Tories recently got various ad agencies to submit ideas for their election campaign. Many of the entries used the image of speed cameras, which are rapidly becoming an upwardly-mobile version of the paedophile menace: News of the World readers get the red mist over kiddy fiddlers, Daily Express readers get it over Gatso cameras. The Tories have also been quick to lend their support to anti-speed camera groups, usually populated by the sort of nutters who think that 200mph is the 'safest' speed at which to drive.

To be fair, there's an economic argument for lower tax on fuel (and fuel tax is incredibly high), but let's not forget that rising petrol prices are to some extent out of any government's control - the recent rises are due to the rise in the price of oil coming from the Middle East. Likewise, you can argue that speed cameras are being used by local authorities as a revenue generator and not a road-safety device, but what's the alternative? As Zoe Williams pithily pointed out in the Guardian: 'What do the Tories plan to do? Abolish speed limits? Or decriminalise speeding?'

But the Tories can't seem to stop trying to be populist - and choosing the causes rather badly. At times it's a very ugly spectacle indeed. Not so long ago Howard tried to play the immigration card, suggesting that people like the BNP only get popular support because mainstream politics ignores ordinary people's concerns about immigration. No. The BNP get support because people are racists. The most charitable interpretation of voting for the BNP is that it's easy to blame immigrants for the many shortcomings of your own shitty life. But if you deported every non-white tomorrow, would things magically get better for John and Jane Council-Estate? It's unlikely.

Is this the future for the Tories? Leading a tragic cavalcade of minority interests? If so, there are still quite a few minority, right-wing causes to champion.

The anti-abortion lobby, for example. The anti-Child Support Agency lobby. Whinging ex-pats. The New Right nutters who think we'd have better services if we all paid 0 per cent tax. Capital punishment buffs. Corporal punishment buffs. People who think we should bring back national service. People who think we should go back to the Secondary Modern system. People who think we should go back to 1942.

But why stop there? There are probably a few votes to be gained from other minority interest groups. Conspiracy theorists. Transvestites. Wiccans. Cat breeders. People who don't like Marmite. Free energy obsessives. Polygamists. Flat earthers. Model railway enthusiasts. Swingers. Mods. Tiddlywinkers. Penis torturers. Gurners. The Hollies tribute bands. The cast of Brookside.

We almost hope this is a road that Michael Howard goes down. When we see a manifesto promising lower taxes, a reduction in crime and daily showings of The Jimmy Corkhill Show, we'll know the Howard circus is in town.

(Readers wishing to know more about safe driving speeds should check out the inadvertent (we hope) Nazi imagery of

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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