After Iain Duncan Smith (a tragic figure whose powers of putting on a brave face, if little else, we must salute) was forced to resign following a vote of No Confidence, Michael Howard was able to take over the leadership of the Conservative Party unopposed on November 6, 2003.
Britain's most right-wing home secretary of the 20th Century, outdoing even his 'Labour' successors Jack Straw and David Blunkett in this regard, Howard presided over the introduction of the massively unpopular Poll Tax - a regressive, bureaucratic disaster - and some of the most repressive laws the country has ever seen, in the form of the notorious Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994. His stint as home secretary also coincided with some of the highest levels of unemployment seen in living memory.
Although never a hit with voters, Howard has coasted into the leadership role of a party which is evidently tired of tearing itself apart, promising - bizarrely - to 'lead the party from its centre'. The Tories have never recovered from their crushing landslide defeat in the 1997 General Election, and every section of the party has seemed intent on blaming all the other sections ever since, much to their electoral disadvantage; whether or not he can really lead them from the centre, it obviously didn't seem worthwhile to keep arguing any more.
John Major understandably resigned the day after his party's grand ignominy in that election, leading to a bitterly fought leadership battle - which Howard joined, but then gave up on after coming last in the first round of votes. It was just before this defeat that fellow Tory right-winger Ann Widdecombe made her famous speech publicly denouncing him, saying that he had 'something of the night' about him - words which have haunted him ever since, perhaps carrying added weight coming as they did from someone who would not seem out of place in a Hammer Horror flick herself.
This slating didn't stop William Hague (the bald, uncharismatic and little-known man eventually elected to the top job) from choosing Howard as his Shadow Home Secretary, a job he stuck with for around two years before stepping down. After another ruinous defeat in the 2001 General Election, Hague stepped down himself, leading to another bruising leadership contest for the party - which, against all odds, chose to elect another bald, uncharismatic and little-known man to its helm, in the form of Iain Duncan Smith: A man chiefly notable for posessing even less character than his predecessor.
It was against this backdrop that Howard - however unlikeable he might be, however much he might scare the general public - was able to slide into the leadership role of a party sick of in-fighting, and no doubt also sick of leaders with no hair or charisma. What this will mean for British politics remains to be seen. It is still highly unlikely that the Tories will make sufficient advances in the next General Election to make up all the ground they have lost, despite the growing unpopularity of the 'New Labour' project; but perhaps a leader people actually take seriously will at least help them to bring some life back into British politics. The lack of any effective opposition is probably the worst possible thing for a country ruled by a party with 'New Labour's overarching ambitions and ideological confusion. My only fear is that having someone as formidable and rabid as Howard in charge of the Shadow cabinet may encourage the 'Labour' Party to move even further over to the right.