The disclosure of the two angry confidential letters sent by Sir Duncan to Richard Wilson, the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office came as Mr Howard prepared to clear his name in the Commons today in the wake of a High Court writ against him from Mr Lewis.
The tone of the letters - in which Sir Duncan stated the non-executive board members' confidence in Mr Lewis - raises questions over whether Sir Duncan will remain on the board. Geoffrey Keeys, a non-executive colleague, resigned in protest at the sacking yesterday.
The significance of the letters is that Sir Duncan, who has yet to comment publicly on Mr Howard's decision, is the Prison Board member most respected in Whitehall and enjoyed the confidence of ministers when he was chief executive of the NHS.
In the most devastating passage of his letters, Sir Duncan, now head of the Centre of International Health Care Management, says: "There was never a more important point in time to support the Director- General and I shudder at the organisational consequences of further discontinuity at the top level."
Amid signs that he still retains strong support among Tory MPs, Mr Howard was last night said by aides to be "relishing" the prospect of meeting his critics head on in today's emergency Commons debate.
Nevertheless, Mr Lewis's writ for unlawful sacking presents the gravest threat to date to the Home Secretary's career. It flatly contradicts Mr Howard's assertion to the Commons that he played no part in the removal of John Marriott, the Parkhurst prison governor, after the escape of three top-security prisoners. And it contains a damning catalogue of 12 alleged incidents of ministerial interference in Prison Service operations and business.
Mr Lewis is seeking special damages for loss of his pounds 125,000 a year salary under a revised contract which was due to end in September 1996. His combative stance has ended any lucrative severance package that he might have received had he gone quietly.
The writ coincided with the publication of Mr Lewis's defence to the critical Learmont report into jail security which led to his sacking. He says Sir John's report contained inaccuracies, was incomplete, and failed to acknowledge change that has taken place.
Within hours of Mr Lewis's bombshell, the increasingly isolated Home Secretary was dealt another blow. Geoffrey Keeys, one of four non-executive directors of the Prison Board, resigned in protest at Mr Lewis's treatment and a second, Urmila Banerjee, said she was considering her position.
Mr Lewis said last night his only concern was to get at the truth. "For me it is a matter of getting the record straight, clearing the air, and creating the conditions for the operational independence that the Prison Service needs."
But his court action has the potential for far greater damage. Under the rules of disclosure, Mr Lewis could obtain access to the thousands of documents considered by the Learmont inquiry - many of which are believed to point to ministerial meddling in the day-to-day running of the service. And the court action circumvents any restrictions on Mr Lewis set by the Official Secrets Act.
However, the Home Office issued a statement last night said:"The Home Secretary looks forward to the opportunity of rebutting allegations made against him. He will emphasise that he has acted entirely properly within the terms of the framework document governing the relationship with the Prison Service agency."
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