As well he might. In classical mythology Nemesis - punisher of those become over-mighty, grand-daughter of Chaos, daughter of Night, and sister of Blame, Woe and Fate - was supposed to have had about her a touch of Aphrodite, and to have carried an apple and the branch of a tree. Her modern counterpart would not have suited a single bit of wispy gauze at groin level. Instead, her unfashionable cross glinted against her white blouse, and her jacket, in the violent blue and green tartan of the Clan Widdecombe, clashed horribly with the decor.
But she was about to undergo a transformation, and most people present already knew it. The butt of popular humour was to become the vehicle of popular retribution. What she had to say was somehow important.
So hush fell when she was called. Two rows in front of her the man who had once - and for years - wielded immense power over prisoner and refugee, sat bolt upright, facing away from her; his lips pursed and his face completely still.
Nemesis had a warning for all. "It should alarm us," she began, in voice like the falling of a guillotine blade, "that the House is now so comprehensively viewed as devoid of honour and a sense of service". But something had happened on her watch which helped to explain such a lack of faith. When she had worked with the former home secretary (her "Right Honourable and Learned Friend"), he had misled the House of Commons. Not lied, of course not. Not fibbed. Not told a direct falsehood. But done everything possible to conceal his true actions in the matter of Derek Lewis and the governor of Parkhurst prison.
And he had got away with it because, as she pointed out, he "has an exquisite way with words". At the time of the big debate 18 months before, Jack Straw had not asked questions with sufficient precision, whereas "My Right Honourable and Learned Friend is always very precise". What she was describing was not a debating style, but a whole political methodology. Howard had assured the House that he had not told Lewis that the governor of Parkhurst should be suspended. He had said that there was "no question of overruling Lewis" - but that was only because he had been given explicit legal advice that he couldn't! Nor had he admitted that Lewis was invited to go away and reconsider his opinion. Then - of course - Lewis was fired.
Howard (still staring straight ahead) had behaved in this way because his "first reaction to attack is denial and refuge in semantic prestidigitation." Semantic prestidigitation! What an epitaph on a modern political career! If there was any one reason why the Tory benches contained such a pitifully small number of MPs, it was because the voters were sick of years of "semantic prestidigitation".
Why on earth, Nemesis asked, had Howard not just come clean and told the House the full truth? Because he had "dug a hole for himself over policy and operations". As she asked this question, Blame (in the shape of Virginia Bottomley) turned in her place on the front bench and looked very hard at Howard, as though curious to see whether he might not contrive to die on the spot. Many another man might have wilted under such an assault from on high. But not Howard. His impermeable silicon features and mercury tongue worked in perfect co-ordination, as he elegantly evaded the charges that had been made against him. "Every decision that I have ever taken has been because I thought it was in the public interest," he asserted. He was not weak, he asserted, but strong, strong, strong!
As he sat down there were loud cheers from behind. He smiled, falsely relieved, for he could not see what we in the gods could - how very few people had made so much racket on his behalf. Nor that Woe (played by Brian Mawhinney) had contemplated his colleague throughout with an expression of undistilled, murderous contempt.
Mawhinney, like Agamemnon - when laid low by an earlier Nemesis - recognised how the Greeks' "arrogant grandeur had made them forgetful of the common cause". Well, tartan will serve as well as gauze to make that point. Yesterday something of the Night certainly touched Howard. Fate said: go prestidigitate.
Crushing blow, page 9
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