Howard escapes to victory

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This wasn't a debate. It was an evisceration; in little over an hour yesterday afternoon Labour's attack on Michael Howard was ripped to pieces and bloodily trampled on the floor of the chamber. It had looked as if it was going to be one of the Government's worst days in the Commons. Instead it was one its best, for years.

Conservative MPs were milling about afterwards in a state of rare over- excitement, informing anyone who passed that Tony Blair had peaked, that this was the turning-point. That's going it a bit; these debates matter less to voters than MPs care to admit. But it would be surprising if Blair, Jack Straw and his closest aides were not already engaged in an agonised post-mortem examination.

The Home Secretary is not merely secure in his job; after days of being muttered about by Tory MPs as a liability, he has become their hero. He is safe as houses and, come to think of it, rather safer than prisons.

Paraphrasing the words used by Iain Macleod in his famous attack on Nye Bevan - "I want to deal closely and with relish with the vulgar, crude and intemperate speech to which the House has just listened'' - Howard performed brilliantly, turning all the rhetoric about high offices being demeaned and men being unfit for government he's suffered back on Blair and Straw. His voice trembled with emotion. His finger stabbed.

He was most affecting. One was reminded of a story told by the late Sir Nicholas Fairbairn QC who, after using all his oratorical skills to get a man accused of murder acquitted, was approached by his tearful client. The man grasped him and said: ''Ach, Mr Fairbairn, that was wonderful. For a moment there, I almost thought I hadn't done it myself.''

Labour, as the prosecution, had however made two tactical errors. First, they played the man, without quite enough evidence, instead of concentrating on the main points of public concern, the condition of the prisons, and the erosion of accountability. Secondly, they had not decided whether Derek Lewis was a martyr or an incompetent fool - whether he should have been sacked or not.

So the Tory hecklers weighed in mercilessly.

Tony Blair did his best to prompt with further questions. As Labour's attack fell apart, the party's senior spin doctor quietly departed from the press gallery. I didn't think the Home Office officials in their box in the chamber looked too happy, either.

Howard's parliamentary triumph leaves an important question about how the country is run unresolved by Parliament. The relationship between ministers and agencies has been exposed, yet again, as unacceptably vague. In essence he has got away with taking credit, but not blame, for what happens in the penal system.

His distinction between policy and operations, fought yesterday through obscure minutes and faxes, is not tenable. This is a gap in proper accountability through which ministers will continue to skip whenever things go wrong.

Meanwhile, the chattering classes have been badly beaten up by the parliamentary Conservative Party - which is after all, the story of the past 16 years.