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How Welsh is Michael Howard?

Nov 7 2004

Leah Oatway, Wales on Sunday

 

LLANELLI boy Michael Howard celebrated his first anniversary as Tory leader yesterday. To mark the occasion, LEAH OATWAY travelled to Westminster to ask: "Come on, Mike, how Welsh are you really?"

MICHAEL Howard tells me his favourite actress is Swansea star Catherine Zeta-Jones.

I raise a slightly sceptical eyebrow - is he a genuine fan of her acting talents or is he simply tapping into his Welsh roots for votes?

Expecting him to fix me with one of those stares - the ones that gave rise to Ann Widdecombe's "something of the night" sneer - his face tumbles into a smile instead.

"I'd have to say Catherine Zeta Jones really, wouldn't I? I've never met her but I'd certainly like to!" he laughs.

He passes the test: what Welshman wouldn't want to swap showbiz kisses with her?

Feeling more like Bridget Jones than a hard-hitting political journalist, I notice that Michael is a lot smaller in build than I expect. And, while I was expecting the cold Prince of Darkness, he greets me with a disarmingly warm smile.

And, talking of stunning women, his face softens even more when he recalls the moment he met his wife Sandra, a former model.

"It was in Hampshire. We were at a dinner dance and she was the friend of a friend," he said.

"I knew who she was instantly but I didn't ask her to dance - I'm not much of a dancer. We spent most of the evening talking and that was that really."

Michael Howard was born in Gorseinon on July 7, 1941. The son of a Jewish couple, he spent his childhood in Llanelli.

He went to Llanelli Grammar School, where he asked his rugby-mad headmaster if he and his mates could play football.

Some 50 years on, Howard still gets excited when you ask him about football, whether about his favourite club, Liverpool, or Wales' national side.

"I watched Wales play England last month in the World Cup qualifier and was bitterly disappointed with the result.

"It's been hard as a supporter this year because Wales did so well and so nearly qualified for the European Championships, I think we were all expecting great things. All is not lost yet but it's going to be pretty hard to make up lost ground now."

So you do follow Welsh sport then, Michael?

"Football, certainly. Swansea are doing very well and Swansea are the team I support after Liverpool.

"I spent many happy hours at the Vetch. I haven't seen the Swans play live for a while but I make it my business to keep track. They drew last Saturday and if they'd won they'd have gone top again, but they're there or thereabouts."

In fact he's close - at the time of our chat Swansea were third in the Coca-Cola League Two.

OK, so you know your football, but what about rugby?

"Well my home side, the Scarlets, haven't been doing too well recently but I'm sure they can recover. They're a good side and I've every faith they can turn it around."

So far, so good.

When it comes to taking time out, the 63-year-old - who left Wales in the 1960s - cites his two favourite holiday destinations as the Caribbean and the Gower.

And who can blame him? On a sunny day, the West Wales beaches are among the best in the world.

"The Gower is without a shadow of doubt one of the prettiest places in Britain," he says.

"I think it's terrific and it's great to spend some time there, going for walks and getting away from everything. Unfortunately, it's difficult to get the time to do that."

Michael, who this week spent two days visiting Haverfordwest, Tenby and Colwyn Bay, admits the Conservatives have a great deal of ground to make up - particularly in Wales.

But he remains confident his MPs will do better in the next general election.

I wonder why, with such a passion for Wales, he didn't opt for Welsh politics instead of Folkestone and Hythe, where he is MP.

He says: "I would have very much liked to represent a Welsh constituency but it never happened. It would have been nice."

Some 25 minutes into the interview and I'm ready to admit defeat - Michael Howard seems pretty Welsh, right down to his Welsh-speaking mam.

But then it all falls apart.

I ask him who is the most interesting person he'd ever met.

He pauses for several seconds before confessing: "This is not going to go down well with your readers but I have to be honest - I admire Margaret Thatcher."

Uh-oh, wrong answer, Michael.

And you were doing so well, too!

 
 

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