The curious case of the royal bedroom

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The Independent Online

For all Michael Howard's storming performance in yesterday's prisons crisis debate, 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 was found in the Queen's bedroom.

Whether or not MPs recalled Michael Fagan's Buckingham Palace intrusion on July 1982 most of them roared with laughter and there were mumblings of "Prince Philip?". But Mr Mullin, justice campaigner and Labour MP for Sunderland South, was on to a serious point.

"Does the Prime Minister recall that the then Home Secretary, Lord Whitelaw, who I think we can call a gentleman of the old school, immediately offered his resignation?

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

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

The Home Secretary dismissed Labour's charge that he had pressurised Derek Lewis, the former director-general of the Prison Service, over the removal of the governor of Parkhurst as a "cheap and tawdry attempt to make petty party political capital" out of the difficulties of the service.

And he accused Tony Blair, who had again tackled Mr Major on the affair, of "allowing himself to be used as the vehicle for the spleen of a bitter man".

With help of Tory backbenchers and a poor performance by Jack Straw, his Labour opposite number, Mr Howard won the day. He was watched from one end of the public gallery by his wife, Sandra, and from the other by John Marriott, the ex-governor of Parkhurst prison.

At the close of the noisy, debate Labour's motion deploring the unwillingness of the Home Secretary to accept responsibility for serious operation failures of the Prison Service was defeated by 280 votes to 231.

Mr Straw struggled with the aid of minutes from a meeting between Mr Howard and officials in the wake of the Parkhurst escape to try and 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 has said he came under "intense pressure" to agree to suspension - greater than he had ever known to change a decision "properly his".

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

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 virtually everyone associated with the prison service had palpably lost confidence in the Home Secretary. "Is it any wonder that the service is in crisis. It has no effective leadership.

"The Secretary of State provides none. Indeed he doesn't even pretend to provide any because he says he is not responsible for the operation of the service. 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."

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 that of Mr Straw. Announcing that he was taking the exceptional step of releasing the official note, he said it showed it was Mr Lewis who decided that the governor or Parkhurst 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.

Pressed on whether he had set a deadline for Mr Lewis, Mr Howard said he had to make a statement to the Commons that afternoon. Of course there had to be a deadline.

Cheered on by Tory backbenchers, Mr Howard had almost completed his 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 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."