Let me take you for lunch, I said to Michael Howard, at a Sunday Telegraph party in 2006 or 2007. I was deputy editor and we were in the rather incongruous setting of an upmarket nightclub in London’s West End, where the Telegraph’s Stella magazine was throwing a bash to impress advertisers. Howard’s wife Sandra was briefly a columnist for the magazine – much to the fury of the cool staff of Stella – who could not believe the editor of the paper, my friend, had hired her on the sound basis that Telegraph readers needed something in the glossy mag they could relate to of a Sunday morning. In Tunbridge Wells, the latest designs by a collective of edgy designers from Hoxton were not going to be of much interest.
Over the noise of the music I tried to have a conversation with Michael Howard. I’ve always liked the former Tory leader when I encountered him and thought that in the Howard v Widdecombe “something of the night” fight he was the much better adjusted person. But he is not an easy man to have a gossip with. He doesn’t seem to like gossip much, and to say he gives little away is putting it mildly. Other hacks have had similar experiences.
Still, something striking he said that night popped back into my head today, when I heard that he has come out for Brexit. I’ll have lunch, said Howard at the Stella party, but I won’t say anything that damages David (Cameron). It was quite an odd thing to say as I hadn’t even invited him to say anything damaging. It was just a lunch invitation, yet he wanted to make it clear that he knew what hacks were after and he backed Cameron to the hilt.
In one sense Howard’s decision on Brexit is unsurprising. He is a long-time Eurosceptic and one of those cabinet ministers John Major railed against in the mid-1990s, so why wouldn’t he be in favour of the UK leaving the European Union?
What is surprising is that he has gone public. Howard is one of David Cameron’s mentors. Cameron worked for Howard as a special advisor. He wrote the 2005 manifesto when Howard was leader. Howard then set up the leadership contest in such a way as to favour Cameron and Osborne, as the two brightests stars he had identified. Throughout Cameron’s leadership he has been a trusted friend and counsellor in a crisis. Along with Major, he is wheeled into battle when the Prime Minister needs to send a signal to his party. Only once, that I know of, were relations really poor, and that was when Cameron was at war with his party over grammar schools. As a grammar school boy (who brilliantly skewered Blair by saying in the Commons he wouldn’t take lectures from a public school boy) Howard was reportedly unhappy, and Steve Hilton (maried to another former Howard special advisor, Rachel Whetstone) is said to have exchanged angry words with him when Howard indicated he might issue a pro-grammar school comment to the press. Other than that, Howard is a Cameron ultra-loyalist. It is not stretching it to say he is the Cameroons’ political Godfather.
That’s why this break with Cameron matters. The man who has gone out of his way since 2005 to ensure he never says anything damaging to Cameron has chosen the other side in the biggest battle of the Tory leader’s political career.