A smart but casually dressed Michael Howard sips his coffee in a corner of the Goring bar. This luxury hotel in London’s Belgravia is a favourite of the royal family, and clearly the shopkeeper’s son from Llanelli too.

It’s easy to see why: on a swelteringly hot Thursday morning, we sit near the open windows as the sun beams through, with a perfect view of the hotel’s back lawn in front of us – the largest, and some say most beautiful, private garden in the city. A slight contrast to the café culture in west Wales.

It is a cosmopolitan setting to mark Lord Howard’s first interview with the Welsh media for as long as he can remember. When he was leader of the Conservative Party, he often spoke to the press in Cardiff. Since then, as a happy and interested “bystander” of politics, not so much. And a lot has changed since he was vying to become the second Welshman after David Lloyd George to enter the black door of Number 10 as prime minister.

To state the obvious, politics is “very different” now than it was in the noughties, especially its main actors. “We’ve got a prime minister who is very different from the previous occupiers of Number 10,” Howard says. “And a Conservative Party that’s quite different, getting its support from different parts of the country than it is used to.” He means the Tory blitz of the Red Wall, which was partly a result of people feeling Labour “hadn’t worked for them”, Howard insists.

I point out that Wales is not entirely the same, as Welsh Labour’s triumph in the recent Senedd election shows. But the question of Labour’s future is perhaps the most intriguing and consequential for British politics. Where did it all go wrong? “I think there was a bit of a sense of entitlement. I think Jeremy Corbyn really crystallised all of that. The Labour Party of Llanelli that I remember from my youth was about as far away from Jeremy Corbyn as I am from Stalin!”

Keir Starmer, he adds, has a “hell of a job” to rebuild trust with voters. Especially when he is up against Boris Johnson, who Howard notoriously sacked from the shadow cabinet in 2004 after his private life started its recurring pattern of dominating the headlines. The Guardian noted at the time that Johnson’s departure from the Tory front bench had brought “an end to an unlikely but uniquely engaging political career.” Seventeen years is a long time in politics, to paraphrase Harold Wilson.

So how does Johnson’s former boss view him? No crisis – however severe – seems to stick to him at all. “That’s right. He’s a unique figure. I can’t recall another prime minister like him. And he seems to have cut through to people in a rather unique way.” True. But one audience where Johnson’s messages are falling on deaf ears are the devolved nations, as tensions between London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, and Belfast simmer. The latest spat was after the Prime Minister joked about Margaret Thatcher’s decision to close the mines: “a big early start” for the transition to green energy, apparently.

Howard acknowledges the Union is going through a “difficult time”. Although he does emphasise the break-up of the UK is not inevitable. “It’s not going to be as easy as many people think for the SNP to win a majority in a referendum, if there is another referendum. The economic case for Scottish independence is pretty weak,” he says.

What about the mandate for that referendum? Johnson said this month it was not at the top of his agenda. “Well, it depends what you mean by mandate. The law is clear: the law says you have to get the consent of the UK government. So, in legal terms, there is no mandate,” Howard, the QC, says. “You can say, politically, there’s a kind-of a mandate.”

The big problem facing the future of the UK, I put to the former Tory leader, is that Downing Street provokes the devolved nations with “muscular unionism”, taking charge of responsibilities post-Brexit that otherwise were with Cardiff or Edinburgh. He disagrees with the premise.

“I don’t think the government is engaging in muscular unionism. I think the best example is the way… in which it’s handling the pandemic. For some time, there’s been a tremendous amount of consultation with the other governments.” He goes on to say there will always be “some disagreements” between the four nations, which is nothing to be worried by.

There is a greater sense of urgency coming from Cardiff on the disagreements. Downing Street, according to Mark Drakeford, continues “to steal powers and money away from Wales.” As Tory leader, Howard sought to hush concerns his party wanted to overturn the new system of governance; devolution was “safe” with him, he said to the party’s Scottish faithful in 2004. How have his views changed, if at all?

“I would be inclined to leave matters of that kind to the Welsh Conservatives. When I have expressed previous views that you ascribe to me, correctly, I was leader of the Conservative Party. I was obviously closely involved in politics, and I was on top of these things. I’m not anymore.”

Hmm. A clever sidestep. He eventually gives way, though, when I ask him if he welcomes where devolution has progressed to. “Where we are now can’t be undone and shouldn’t be undone. And there’s no prospect of it being undone.” Some in his own party would say otherwise.

It’s fair to say Welsh affairs never really ignited the political mind of Michael Howard, like other politicians with Cymric roots during the Thatcher years; Michael Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe are two that come to mind.

Howard does maintain an interest around the future of the Welsh economy; its future is “pretty bright” after the pandemic, he says, due to the innovative nature of businesses. He has said before that he would have liked a Welsh seat in the House of Commons (he once hoped to stand in Cardiff North). There was even a time, Howard tells me, when he was almost appointed Welsh secretary. “It would have been a great honour, which I would have loved. It didn’t happen.”

Like every politician, his background is important to understand his career. Howard’s father, Bernard, fled from Romania to Britain in the 1930s and eventually settled in Llanelli, where he became a successful businessman. Educated at Llanelli Boys Grammar School, the young Michael had his first political intervention in 1955. The colosseum was the town’s market hall, filled with hundreds of people; a showdown was to happen between the future Tory leader and the then Labour grandee and local MP, Jim Griffiths.

“Labour had put forward the idea of comprehensive schools,” Howard says. “And to ask a critical question of Jim Griffiths was an act of dire sacrilege!” Quite right too. “And as a 14-year-old boy, I got up and said: ‘Why is the Labour Party pledging to abolish grammar schools?’ Jim said: ‘Oh, we’re not pledging to abolish grammar schools; we want to make all schools like grammar schools!’”

This brings me to my favourite topic: that our current crop of politicians are nowhere near the cut of Jim Griffiths and his peers. They don’t make ’em like that anymore, I tell Howard. Even the ‘big beasts’ of the Thatcher era seem to be reams above the calibre of ministers today. He, again, disagrees: “I think there’s always a danger you look back with rose-tinted spectacles. In 60 years’ time, people will be saying: ‘Oh, they don’t make politicians like Boris Johnson, Keir Starmer, anymore!’” Really? Perhaps he is more of an optimist than the Llanelli boy sitting with him, who is five decades younger.

Howard has an appointment after seeing me, so I must hurry up. How will the pandemic change society? We will shift to a hybrid model of working from home and the office – a “good thing”, I am told. Politically, the implications are “too early to tell.” But there is one clear trend emerging, apparently. “Obviously, [Covid-19] had a significant impact on the way in which people perceive the NHS, which may not be an altogether good thing.” Why? “Because, like every big institution, the NHS will need reform from time to time. And this actually may make it a bit more difficult to put in place reforms.”

But this sort of thing doesn’t really tick his interest. What is he going to do going forward? “I’ve always been very interested in the boundary between parliamentary sovereignty and judicial intervention,” Howard says. “And I am disappointed with the proposals that my fellow Llanelli boy [justice secretary Robert Buckland] has just brought forward to reform judicial review, which are very minimalist.”

Now, before we finish, for the tough quickfire questions. His beloved Liverpool FC or Swansea? “It depends,” he says, before going on to tell me when he would support either team over the other – focused on situational analysis of relegations, promotions, and league titles. Then I try to think of non-Tory politicians for him to vote on. Jim Griffiths or Lloyd George? “Jim Griffiths. Llanelli loyalties trump anything else.” David Cameron or Boris Johnson? “Both.” Of course. My hardest question is left until last: would he have liked to have been prime minister or Llanelli’s MP? The former, unsurprisingly.

Our time is up, and before long I am left alone in the garden of the Goring. Howard is, of course, long from the political frontline now. But what is most interesting is that there are few from Wales to replace him. Of course, he may have told me our politicians are just as good as they were in Jim’s day, but the big beasts – of any party – are few and far between. Cardiff ministers, and their deputies, may like to think they are in the new age of Welsh democracy, but I doubt the public would agree.

Howard seems to be part of a dying breed of politicians who went from Wales to Westminster and dominated public life for decades. Now, with a new political focus in Cardiff, it is yet to be seen what big beasts we will send to Westminster in the future. But as long as Wales remains part of the UK, it is imperative we continue to do so – if we wish to elevate the politics of Wales for years to come.

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