Mr Straw's accusation came on a day of claim and counter-claim over whether Mr Howard intervened to seek the disciplinary suspension of the governor of Parkhurst, John Marriott, after the breakout from the high security jail last January.
The Prime Minister was forced to the defence of the embattled Home Secretary amid growing calls for him to accept blame and resign over the security crisis in the Prison Service. Labour has called a half-day Commons debate tomorrow on Mr Howard's responsibility for the service and his decision to sack Mr Lewis, its director-general. Mr Major told the Commons: "I believe he has acted entirely properly throughout this affair. He has my full support."
At the centre of the row at Westminster was Mr Howard's alleged attempt to suspend Mr Marriott immediately after the escape.
But Mr Lewis was yesterday also thought to be ready to take issue with the possible involvement of Mr Howard's officials in the timing of the transfer of IRA prisoners to Northern Ireland - a controversial decision for which Mr Lewis shouldered the entire blame.
In the Commons Tony Blair, the Labour leader, asked Mr Major to confirm that "the Home Secretary personally told Mr Lewis that the governor of Parkhurst prison should be suspended immediately. When Mr Lewis objected as it was an operational matter, [Mr Howard] threatened to instruct him to do it.
"When Mr Lewis further objected the Home Secretary told the operational director of the prison service by fax that he was going to announce it in the House of Commons that day and duly did in his statement to the House."
In his reply Mr Major said that the Home Secretary was responsible to Parliament for the actions of the Home Office and for the actions of the government.
But he added: "He appointed Mr Lewis to run the prison service and the criticisms of the last few days over the report [by General Sir John Learmont] have been directed at the director of prisons and not at the Home Secretary."
Although neither Mr Howard on Monday nor the Prime Minister yesterday directly rebutted this claim in Commons exchanges, the Home Office last night issued a statement saying that Mr Lewis had confirmed in a BBC television interview that the decision to remove Mr Marriott from his job of running Parkhurst had been taken by Mr Lewis alone.
The statement said that Mr Howard "did not tell Mr Lewis that the governor of Parkhurst should be suspended immediately. The Home Secretary did not threaten to instruct Mr Lewis to suspend the governor of Parkhurst and the Home Secretary did not announce to the House of commons that afternoon that the governor of Parkhurst had been suspended. Mr Marriott was moved to other duties in the Prison Service."
But Mr Straw insisted last night that the Home Office statement left open the question of whether the Home Secretary had sought disciplinary suspension - which did not in the event take place.
Mr Straw said on ITN last night: "I am saying Michael Howard has been less than frank with the House of Commons about his involvement operational matters, namely the moving and possible suspension of the Governor of Parkhurst prison."
Labour sources yesterday claimed they had been told that Mr Lewis had been informed through a senior Home Office official that if he did not suspend Mr Marriott - as distinct from removing him from his current post pending an inquiry - Mr Lewis's own job could be at risk
The Home Secretary told the Home Affairs Select Committee earlier this year that prison rules governing the removal of staff meant that there "was no need" to have any discussion with Mr Lewis about Mr Marriott's future.
He has also claimed that if "policy" failings rather than "operational" failing are shown to have caused the Parkhurst debacle, he would resign. He maintains the Learmont inquiry cleared him.
Yesterday Judge Stephen Tumim, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, questioned the Home Secretary's attempts to divorce policy from operation. "If you are dividing policy and operations it means the Home Secretary is not responsible for anything at all," Judge Tumim said.
"Nothing is created by policy. What has created trouble is created through operational failure.
"That means the Home Secretary takes credit but is free of responsibility. I'm saying it's a bogus distinction," he told BBC radio. "The law says the Home Secretary has responsibility for prisons - that's the Prisons Act."
Mr Lewis, said: "The degree of [Mr Howard's] involvement ranges from simply asking for information, to questioning decisions, to personally approving things like search plans."
Questioned about the depth of involvement, he said: "A great deal of involvement. Yes."
The great escaper, page 2
Miles Kington, page 19Reuse content