Scathing Widdecombe crushes Howard's hopes of leadership

Tories at war: Ex-minister accuses former Home Secretary of misleading the Commons
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The Independent Online
Michael Howard suffered political assassination last night at the hands of his former deputy, saying goodbye to his hopes of leading his party.

Ann Widdecombe saddled the former home secretary with the phrase "semantic prestidigitation" as she accused him of retreating into clever words when in trouble. Later the current Home Secretary stepped in to the row when he agreed to publish the transcript of a private meeting held in 1995 which was at the heart of the dispute.

Miss Widdecombe delivered blow after blow to Mr Howard's credibility. He sat apparently impassive as his former minister of state ended his political career and her own. "My Right Honourable and Learned Friend has an exquisite way with words," she said, accusing him of displaying immense skill in misleading the House without telling an outright lie. She added that Mr Howard "has a problem in that his first reaction to attack is denial and refuge in semantic prestidigitation". The only heckling from government benches came as Miss Widdecombe admitted she should have resigned over the sacking of Derek Lewis, former head of the Prison Service.

Mr Howard should have been open with fellow MPs about his disagreement with Mr Lewis in 1995 over the suspension of the governor of Parkhurst Prison, she said. "He could not do so, of course, because he had dug a hole for himself over policy and operations, and he would never have had to dig such a hole had he been prepared to keep the director-general in place." His actions had cost the taxpayer pounds 250,000 in compensation and costs.

"In the last Parliament ministers were criticised in independent reports. They did not resign. I am not saying that they should have done so, but if it is justice for us then it is justice for our loyal servants ... Regularly to protect and excuse ourselves while visiting serious vengeance on others corrupts justice and demeans office."

Miss Widdecombe praised the achievements of Mr Lewis while in charge of the Prison Service, which had transformed from a desperate situation.

She posed these crucial and damaging questions to Mr Howard: "Why did he say he had not personally told Mr Lewis that Mr [John] Marriott should be suspended immediately, when he had?

"Why did he say there was no question of overruling Mr Lewis when the question had been pursued as far as consulting the Cabinet Office and legal advisers? "Why did he say that he was giving the House a full account when he knows very well that important issues which were being discussed in the House were in fact omitted from the minutes which he laid before them as a full account?

"Will he now, in order to clear any doubt at all that may exist in the minds of Honourable Members, ask the current Home Secretary to release the full transcript of the meeting?" Later the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, published the transcript of a meeting between Mr Howard and Mr Lewis at which Mr Marriott's future was discussed.

In it, Mr Howard, who has always denied interfering in operational matters, is recorded as saying: "John Marriott cannot continue as governor. It is inconceivable that disciplinary charges won't follow. I can't conceive of a clearer case for suspension." When Mr Lewis argued against this, Mr Howard said: "I don't want to intervene formally." Miss Widdecombe said later that the statement amounted to a threat.

On the disputed timing of Mr Marriott's removal, Mr Howard is categorical in demanding: "No, no, no. I want to say, 'is today being removed'." Mr Howard told the Commons there was no basis for Miss Widdecombe's attack on his integrity. "I came into this House determined to uphold the highest standards of public life, but I was also determined to get things done. I was not entitled to tell the former director-general what to do, and I did not."

Last night sources close to Mr Lewis said the transcripts showed Mr Howard had interfered in operational decisions on Mr Marriott's future, though he denied it. This was "totally inconsistent" with his declaration that the decisions taken on January 10 were Mr Lewis's alone and that Mr Howard was not involved, they said.

Transcript at the heart of the prisons controversy

Edited highlights of Michael Howard's meeting with Derek Lewis and others on 10 January 1995, after the escape of three prisoners from Parkhurst Prison.

The escape came shortly after a similar incident at Whitemoor. Mr Lewis told Mr Howard that the governor, John Marriott, had broken several rules including never making a single night visit to the prison.

DEREK LEWIS: I have concluded that the existing governor cannot continue in view of the criticisms of local management ... John Marriott will be moved to other duties pending a disciplinary inquiry.

MICHAEL HOWARD: But helping with inquiries will be compatible with suspension.

(There was a break at this point.)

MH: These are serious charges at any time. Following Whitemoor, they seem breathtaking. John Marriott cannot continue as governor. It is inconceivable that disciplinary charges will not follow. I can't conceive of a clearer case for suspension.

DL: Suspension is not required under the prison discipline code.

MH: But what you have said makes clear that the code doesn't limit the grounds on which suspension can occur to security. If the governor is ... to assist in the transitional phase at Parkhurst while the new governor is put in place, that does not amount to another job. It will be seen publicly as a fig leaf. I don't want to intervene formally.

DL: We have a vacancy in the project on personnel, appraisal and training ... it has no security implications ... the post-holder will be responsible just for dissemination of the report. It is non-executive. It can come into effect immediately so that John Marriott is not suspended.

MH: That is a matter of semantics.

Richard Wilson (Home Office Permanent Secretary): Are the words "is today being removed as governor" acceptable?

DL: Or tomorrow?

MH: No, no, no. I want to say "is today being removed."