Howard was born in Swansea. He studied at Peterhouse, Cambridge, following which he joined the Young Conservatives. In 1964 he was called to the Bar and became a Queen's Counsel in 1982. He became a Member of Parliament (MP) in the 1983 General Election, representing the constituency of Folkestone and Hythe. This quickly led to promotion and Howard became Minister for Local Government in 1987. Under John Major (1990–1997), he held several cabinet positions including Secretary of State for Employment (1990–1992) and Home Secretary (1993–1997).
Following the Conservative Party's defeat in the 1997 General Election, Howard unsuccessfully made a bid for the post of Conservative Party Leader and held the posts of Shadow Foreign Secretary (1997–1999) and Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer (2001–2003). In November 2003, following the Conservative Party's vote of no confidence in its leader Iain Duncan Smith, he was elected unopposed. In the 2005 General Election, the Conservatives gained 33 new seats in Westminster, including five from the Liberal Democrats, but this still gave them only 198 seats to Labour's 355. Following the election, Howard resigned as Leader of the Conservative Party and was succeeded by David Cameron. Howard did not contest his seat of Folkestone and Hythe in the 2010 General Election and entered the House of Lords as Baron Howard of Lympne.
Howard was born Michael Hecht in Gorseinon, Swansea. He is the son of Bernat Hecht, who was born in Romania and came to Britain in 1939. His mother, Hilda (Kershion), lived in Wales from the age of 6 months. Both of Howard's parents were from Jewish families. When Howard was six, his parents became naturalised as British subjects (now called British citizens), and his surname was also changed following the parents' naturalisation with the new surname Howard.
Howard passed his eleven-plus exam in 1952 and then attended Llanelli Boys' Grammar School. He joined the Young Conservatives at age 15. He obtained eight O-levels, and A-levels, gaining a place at Peterhouse at Cambridge University. He was President of the Cambridge Union Society in 1962. After taking a 2:1 in the first part of the economics tripos, he switched to law and graduated with a 2:2 in 1962.
He was one of a cluster of Conservative students at Cambridge University around this time, sometimes referred to as the "Cambridge Mafia", many of whom held high government office under Margaret Thatcher and John Major (see: Cambridge University Conservative Association).
Howard was called to the Bar at the Inner Temple in 1964 and specialised in employment and planning law. He continued his career at the Bar, becoming a practising Queen's Counsel in 1982 (unlike some barrister-MPs who were awarded the title as an honorific despite no longer practising at the Bar).
In the late 1960s Howard gained promotion within the Bow Group, becoming Chairman in April 1970. At the Conservative Party conference in October 1970, he made a notable speech commending the government for attempting to curb trade union power and also called for state aid to strikers' families to be reduced or stopped altogether, a policy which the Thatcher government pursued over a decade later.
In the 1970s, Howard was a leading advocate of British membership of the Common Market (EEC) and served on the board of the cross-party Britain in Europe group.
Howard was named as co-respondent in the high-profile divorce case of 1960s model Sandra Paul (now Sandra Howard). They subsequently married in 1975. They have a son born in 1976 and a daughter born in 1977.
At the 1966 general election and 1970 general election, Howard unsuccessfully contested the safe Labour parliamentary constituency of Liverpool Edge Hill reinforcing his strong support for Liverpool F.C. which he has held since childhood.
In June 1982, Howard was selected to contest the constituency of Folkestone and Hythe in Kent after the sitting Conservative MP, Sir Albert Costain, decided to retire. Howard won the seat at the 1983 general election.
Howard gained quick promotion, becoming Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Trade and Industry in 1985 with responsibility for regulating the financial dealings of the City of London. This junior post became very important, as he oversaw the Big Bang introduction of new technology in 1986. After the 1987 general election, he became Minister for Local Government. Following a proposal from backbench MP David Wilshire, he accepted the amendment which would become Section 28 (prohibiting local governments from the "promotion" of homosexuality) and defended its inclusion.
Howard guided the 1988 Local Government Finance Act through the House of Commons. The act brought in Margaret Thatcher's new system of local taxation, officially known as the Community Charge but almost universally nicknamed the "poll tax". Howard personally supported the tax and won Thatcher's respect for minimising the rebellion against it within the Conservative Party. After a period as Minister for Water and Planning in 1988–89, during which he was responsible for implementing water privatisation in England and Wales, Howard was promoted to the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Employment in January 1990 following the resignation of Norman Fowler. He subsequently guided through legislation abolishing the closed shop, and campaigned vigorously for Thatcher in the first ballot of the 1990 Conservative Party leadership contest, although he told her a day before she resigned that he felt she wasn't going to win and that John Major was better placed to defeat Michael Heseltine.
He retained his cabinet post under John Major and campaigned against trade union power during the 1992 general election campaign. His work in the campaign led to his appointment as Secretary of State for the Environment in the reshuffle after the election. In this capacity he encouraged the United States to participate in the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, but shortly afterwards he was appointed Home Secretary in a 1993 reshuffle precipitated by the sacking of Norman Lamont as Chancellor.
As Home Secretary he pursued a tough approach to crime, summed up in his sound bite, "prison works". During his tenure as Home Secretary, recorded crime fell by 16.8%. In 2010 Howard claimed a 45% decrease in crime since a 1993 study by Home Office criminologist Roger Tarling proved that prison worked though the prison population rose from 42,000 to nearly 85,000. Ken Clarke disagreed, pointing to a 60% recidivism rate amongst newly released prisoners and hinting that factors such as better household and vehicle security and better policing could be influencing crime rates, not just the incapacitation effect of removing offenders to prison.
Howard repeatedly clashed with judges and prison reformers as he sought to clamp down on crime through a series of 'tough' measures, such as reducing the right to silence of defendants in their police interviews and at their trials as part of 1994's Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. Howard voted for the reintroduction of the death penalty for the killing of police officers on duty and for murders carried out with firearms in 1983 and 1990, though he voted against it for cold-blooded and premeditated murder in 1987 and 1990. In 1991 he changed his mind and became against the reintroduction of the death penalty, regardless of the crime, and voted against it again in February 1994.
In 1993, after the murder of James Bulger, two eleven-year-old boys were convicted of his murder and sentenced to be detained at Her Majesty's pleasure, with a recommended a minimum term of eight years. Lord Taylor of Gosforth, the Lord Chief Justice, ordered that the two boys should serve a minimum of ten years. The editors of The Sun newspaper handed a petition bearing nearly 280,000 signatures to Howard, in a bid to increase the time spent by both boys in custody.
This campaign was successful, and in July 1994 Howard announced that the boys would be kept in custody for a minimum of fifteen years, meaning that they would not be considered for release until February 2008, by which time they would be 25 years of age.
A former Master of the Rolls, Lord Donaldson, criticised Howard's intervention, describing the increased tariff as "institutionalised vengeance ... [by] a politician playing to the gallery". The increased minimum term was overturned in 1997 by the House of Lords, who ruled that it was "unlawful" - (the decision was declared substantively "ultra vires") - for the Home Secretary to decide on minimum sentences for young offenders. The High Court and European Court of Human Rights have since ruled that, though Parliament may set minimum and maximum terms for individual categories of crime, it is the responsibility of the trial judge, with the benefit of all the evidence and argument from both prosecution and defence counsel, to determine the minimum term in individual criminal cases.
His reputation was dented on 13 May 1997 when a critical inquiry into a series of prison escapes was published. In advance of the publication Howard made statements to assign blame to the prison service. Television interviewer Jeremy Paxman asked him the same question 14 times in all during an edition of the Newsnight programme. Asking whether Howard had intervened when Derek Lewis sacked a prison governor, Paxman asked: "Did you threaten to overrule him?" Howard did not give a direct answer, instead repeatedly saying that he "did not instruct him" and ignoring the "threaten" part of the question. Paxman resumed his question in another interview in 2004. A surprised Howard remarked: "Oh come on Jeremy, are you really going back over that again? As it happens, I didn't. Are you satisfied now?" Secret Home Office papers partially vindicated Howard but show that Howard asked a top civil servant if he had the power to overrule the Prison Service director general.
Shortly after the 1997 Newsnight interview, Ann Widdecombe, his former minister of state at the Home Office, made a statement in the House of Commons about the dismissal of then director of the Prison Service, Derek Lewis, and remarked of Howard that there is "something of the night" about him. This much quoted comment is thought to have contributed to the failure of his 1997 bid for the Conservative Party leadership, including by Howard and Widdecombe. This comment led to him being caricatured as a vampire, in part due to his Romanian ancestry, but such characterisations caused discontent among members of Britain's Jewish community.
Following the 1997 resignation of John Major, Howard and William Hague announced they would be running on the same ticket, with Howard as leader and Hague as Deputy Leader and Party Chairman. The day after they agreed this, Hague decided to run on his own. Howard also stood but his campaign was marred by attacks on his record as Home Secretary.
Howard came in last out of five candidates with the support of only 23 MPs in the first round of polling for the leadership election. He then withdrew from the race and endorsed the eventual winner William Hague. Howard served as Shadow Foreign Secretary for the next two years but retired from the Shadow Cabinet in 1999, though remaining an MP.
After the 2001 general election, Howard was recalled to frontline politics when the Conservative Party's new leader, Iain Duncan Smith, appointed him Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. His performances in the post won him much praise, indeed under his guidance the Conservatives decided to debate the economy on an 'Opposition Day' for the first time in several years. After Duncan Smith was removed from the leadership, Howard was elected unopposed as leader of the party in November 2003. As leader, he faced much less discontent within the party than any of his three predecessors and was seen as a steady hand. He avoided repeating such managerial missteps as Duncan Smith's firing of David Davis as Conservative Party Chairman, and imposed discipline quickly and firmly; he removed the party whip from Ann Winterton after she joked about 23 Chinese migrants' deaths.
In February 2004, Howard called on PM Tony Blair to resign over the Iraq war, for failing to ask "basic questions" regarding WMD claims and misleading Parliament. In July the Conservative leader stated that he would not have voted for the motion that authorised the Iraq war had he known the quality of intelligence information on which the WMD claims were based. At the same time, he said he still believed in the Iraq invasion was right because "the prize of a stable Iraq was worth striving for". His criticism of Blair did not earn Howard any sympathy in Washington DC, where President Bush refused to meet him. Karl Rove is reported to have told Howard, "you can forget about meeting the president. Don't bother coming."
Howard was named 2003 Parliamentarian of the Year by The Spectator and Zurich UK. This was in recognition of his performance at the dispatch box in his previous role as Shadow Chancellor. However, 12 months after he became party leader, his personal popularity with the public had not increased from that of several years before. Neither had that of his party in the opinion polls.
In November 2004, Newsnight again concentrated on Howard with coverage of a campaign trip to Cornwall and an interview with Jeremy Paxman. The piece, which purported to show that members of the public were unable to identify Howard and that those who recognised him did not support him, was the subject of an official complaint from the Conservative Party. The complaint argued that the Newsnight team spoke only to people who held opinions against either Michael Howard or the Conservatives and that Paxman's style was bullying and unnecessarily aggressive. In this programme, Paxman also returned to his question from 1997. Howard returned briefly to Newsnight on Jeremy Paxman's final episode on 18 June 2014 for a cameo.
In the 2005 general election (on 5 May 2005), Howard's Conservative Party failed to unseat the Labour government, although the Conservatives did gain 33 seats (including five from the Liberal Democrats) and Labour's majority shrank from 167 to 66. The Conservatives were left with 198 seats to Labour's 355. The Conservative share of the national vote increased by 0.6% from 2001 and 1.6% from 1997. The party ended with 32.4% of the total votes casts, which was within 3% of Labour on 35.2%.
The day after the election, Howard stated in a speech in the newly gained Conservative seat in Putney that he would not lead the party into the next general election as, already aged 63, he would be "too old" by that stage, and that he would stand down "sooner rather than later", following a revision of the Conservative leadership electoral process. Despite the election of a third consecutive Labour government, Howard described the election as "the beginning of a recovery" for the Conservative party following Labour's landslide victories in 1997 and 2001.
Howard's own constituency of Folkestone and Hythe had been heavily targeted by the Liberal Democrats as the most sought after prize of their failed "decapitation" strategy of seeking to gain seats from prominent Conservatives. Yet Howard almost doubled his majority to 11,680, while the Liberal Democrats saw their vote fall.
During the 2005 campaign, Howard was criticised by some commentators for conducting a campaign which addressed the issues of immigration, asylum seekers and travellers, when he himself was the descendant of immigrants. Others pointed out that the continued media coverage of such issues created most of the controversy and that Howard merely defended his views when questioned at unrelated policy launches.
Some evidence suggested that the public generally supported policies proposed by the Conservative Party when they were not told which party had proposed them, indicating that the party still had an image problem. Conservative John Major's 30% lead in 1992 amongst the sought after ABC1 voters (e.g. doctors, lawyers, managers) had all but disappeared by 2005.
The campaign focus on immigration may have been influenced by Howard's election adviser Lynton Crosby, who earlier had run similar tactics in Australian elections. Whether the hiring of Crosby was a good idea or not in hindsight, his organisation of the campaign was credited with making the Conservative election drive much more professional and organised than at the previous election. Crosby was later re-hired by the Conservative Party to run their successful campaign in the 2008 London Mayor election.
In the lead up to the election campaign, Howard continued to impose strong party discipline, controversially forcing the deselection of Danny Kruger (Sedgefield), Robert Oulds and Adrian Hilton (both Slough) and Howard Flight (Arundel & South Downs).
Despite announcing after the 2005 general election that he would vacate the role of party leader, Howard performed a substantial reshuffle of the party's front bench in which several rising star MPs were given their first shadow portfolios, including George Osborne and David Cameron. This move cleared the way for Cameron (who had worked for Howard as a Special Advisor when the latter was Home Secretary) to stand for the Conservative Party leadership.
The reforms to the party's election process took several months and Howard remained in his position for six months after the elections. During that period, he enjoyed a fairly pressure-free time, often making joking comparisons between himself and Tony Blair, both of whom had declared they would not stand at the next general election. He also oversaw Blair's first parliamentary defeat, when the Conservative Party, the Liberal Democrats and sufficient Labour Party rebels voted against government proposals to extend to 90 days the period that terror suspects could be held for without charge. Howard stood down as leader in December 2005 and was replaced by David Cameron.
Howard announced on 17 March 2006 that he would stand down as MP for Folkestone and Hythe at the 2010 election. On 13 July 2006 the Conservatives selected Damian Collins to stand in his place at that election.
On 19 June 2006 the International Herald Tribune reported that Michael Howard would become chairman of Diligence Europe, a private intelligence and risk assessment company founded by former CIA and MI5 members.
On 23 October 2006, Michael Howard revealed that he had voluntarily been questioned as a potential witness concerning the "Cash for Honours" investigation surrounding fundraising and the 2005 election campaign. He was not suspected of any criminal activity, was not accused of any criminal activity and gave evidence purely as a witness in an investigation focusing primarily on the Labour Government's use of the peerages system and their party fundraising.
On 28 May 2010, it was announced in the Dissolution Honours List that Michael Howard would become a Conservative life peer in the House of Lords. His title was gazetted in the afternoon of 13 July 2010 as Baron Howard of Lympne, of Lympne in the County of Kent. He was formally introduced into the House of Lords on 20 July 2010 at 2:20pm, and attended Questions and debate later that day. He was introduced to the Chamber by past colleague Norman Lamont.
In 2010, it was announced David Cameron wanted Howard to join his Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, possibly as Lord Chancellor, via the House of Lords as part of David Cameron's appeal to rightwing Tories. However, it did not happen, Howard having criticised the government's proposal for a 'rehabilitation revolution'.
In February 2011 there was increased speculation that Cameron would reshuffle his cabinet, with Lord Howard brought in to replace Kenneth Clarke as Secretary of State for Justice. Instead, Chris Grayling was appointed.
A few days after Article 50 was triggered for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, Howard was interviewed on 2 April 2017 by Sophy Ridge for her programme on Sky News. He compared the post-Brexit situation of Gibraltar's disputed sovereignty with Spain with the resolution of a similar issue by the Falklands War in 1982. Howard said he was "absolutely certain" Theresa May "will show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar" as Margaret Thatcher had done in the South Atlantic. Leading figures from the other parties rejected this viewpoint. A spokesman for Number 10 said such a conflict "isn't going to happen".
Howard was appointed a Companion of Honour in the 2011 Birthday Honours.
In 2015, Soma Oil and Gas, which Howard chairs, was investigated by the Serious Fraud Office. A UN report had accused Soma of "appearing to fund systematic payoffs to senior ministerial officials." Soma Oil and Gas denies any wrongdoing and Howard himself is not implicated in the accusations. On 14 December 2016, The Serious Fraud Office closed its investigation of Soma, citing insufficient evidence of corruption.
Howard is a keen supporter of the hospice movement and chairman of Hospice UK.1982–1983: Mr Michael Howard QC
1983–1990: Mr Michael Howard QC MP
1990–2010: The Right Honourable Michael Howard QC MP
2010: The Right Honourable Michael Howard QC
2010–2011: The Right Honourable The Lord Howard of Lympne PC QC
2011–: The Right Honourable The Lord Howard of Lympne CH PC QC