Howard strikes back and escapes to victory

Inside Parliament
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Michael Howard yesterday hauled his political reputation from the mire of prison service mismanagement to Tory hero status. In a storming Commons performance the Home Secretary dismissed charges of interfering in the operation of the Prison Service and said Tony Blair had allowed himself to be used as a "vehicle for the spleen of a bitter man".

The bitter man was Derek Lewis, the former director-general of the Prison Service, whose allegations of interference by Mr Howard were at the heart of the noisy debate.

Mr Howard condemned the Labour motion as a "cheap and tawdry attempt to make petty party political capital" out of the difficulties of the service. But at the close of the debate the political capital was his.

Tory backbenchers waved their order papers in triumph and Labour's motion deploring the unwillingness of the Home Secretary to accept responsibility for serious operational failures of the Prison Service was rejected by 280 votes to 231.

The debate was watched from one end of the public gallery by Sandra Howard, the Home Secretary's wife, and from the other by John Marriott, the ex- governor of Parkhurst prison.

Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, struggled with the aid of minutes from a meeting between Mr Howard and officials in the wake of the Parkhurst escape to try to prove that Mr Howard wanted Mr Marriott suspended whereas Mr Lewis only wanted him moved.

According to the minutes, the Home Secretary "wondered whether it was right for Mr Marriott to be moved to other duties as distinct from being suspended from duty".

Mr Straw told the House that Mr Lewis had said he came under "intense pressure" to agree to suspension at the meeting - greater than he had ever known to change a decision which was "very properly his".

He also maintained that Mr Howard had over-ridden Mr Lewis in announcing to MPs on 10 January that Mr Marriott was to be moved that day. The Commons statement followed an inquiry into the escape.

Mr Howard repeatedly avoided challenges to say whether he had acted against Mr Lewis's advice, but eventually told the House: "The answer is No, because all the decisions that day were made by the director-general of the Prison Service."

Mr Straw said: "We say that in practice the Secretary of State has on numerous occasions taken decisions and otherwise interfered in the operation of the prison service."

"But because of the fiction that he is not involved in, nor responsible for, operational matters, he has at all times had to avoid any admission that he has been so involved."

Mr Straw said it was well known that Mr Howard "wanted Mr Marriott's head" and wanted to present it to the House that afternoon.

Mr Howard used the same 10 January minute to try and draw precisely the opposite conclusion to Mr Straw's. Announcing that he was taking the exceptional step of releasing the official note, he said it showed it was Mr Lewis who decided Mr Marriott should be moved.

"I was entitled to be consulted by Mr Lewis about this important matter, and I was. I was entitled in the course of that consultation to explore alternatives, as I did.

"I was not entitled to give instructions - I did not."

Cheered on by Tory backbenchers, Mr Howard had almost completed his brutal, lawyerly demolition of Mr Straw and Labour's case when Tony Blair intervened, claiming Mr Howard had wanted Mr Marriott suspended and wanted it done immediately.

He challenged the Home Secretary to allow those who received the instruction to move Mr Marriott - the governor himself and Phillipa Drew, director of prison operations - to give evidence as to what they were told by the Home Office.

But Mr Howard said the intervention cast the most serious questions on Mr Blair's judgement. "If there were any evidence required that the Labour Party is unfit to govern we have seen it here this afternoon."

He said Mr Blair "has demeaned his office by allowing himself to be used as a vehicle for the spleen of a bitter man ... He and his sidekick, Mr Straw, have shown themselves to be utterly unfit for government."

The former shadow Home Secretary, Gerald Kaufman, thought it the performance of a "shyster lawyer" while Sir Ivan Lawrence, Tory chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said that what the debate was about was "the survival of the Home Secretary".

Party lines were briefly disturbed when Sir Peter Lloyd, a former Conservative prisons minister, said he was sorry Mr Howard had not backed Mr Lewis. "I believe they were set a very tough job - to turn round, what I know to be, a very ill-managed service."

For all Michael Howard's storming performance, it was a humble backbencher, Chris Mullin, who pointed up the change in political ethics the affair seems to illustrate.

During a testy Prime Minister's Question Time preceding the debate, Mr Mullin asked if John Major recalled the occasion on which a man - Michael Fagan - was found in the Queen's bedroom.

Whether or not MPs recalled the incident in July 1982, most of them roared with laughter and there were mumblings of "Prince Philip?".

However, Mr Mullin, Labour MP for Sunderland South, was serious. He asked if Mr Major recalled that the then Home Secretary, Lord Whitelaw, immediately offered to resign.

"Was Lord Whitelaw wrong? Could he have said it was an operational matter and none of his business?" asked Mr Mullin.

Mr Major did not say whether he recalled the man in the Queen's bedroom, but all his replies and Mr Howard's arguments were to the effect that Lord Whitelaw was wrong.