The Home Secretary is very much at home

Even those who hate his politics must be awed by Michael Howard's survival skills
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Michael Howard has the worst job in politics. As Home Secretary he has some of the most volatile issues in politics in his portfolio - prisons, hijackings, political asylum, CS gas, identity cards and even dangerous dogs. The dogs may not have raised their snarling heads in the past week. But almost everything else has.

To many he is the worst thing in politics too. And the past few days have added even greater lustre to his reputation as "the minister who will never resign".

So is he, as his critics frequently reiterate, the most hateful Home Secretary in living memory, with an endless succession of blunders - for which he always manages to pass the blame to someone else - and an unprecedented number of reprimands and corrections by the courts? Or are these the inevitable fall-out of the most difficult job in the Cabinet and convenient sticks with which to beat a politician who is just too right-wing for the liberals of the media and judicial establishment?

It is the operational style of Houdini Howard which holds the clue to answering that question. And the past fortnight has afforded a multi-faceted opportunity for students of his technique.

It all began on 15 August when Richard Tilt, the director general of the Prison Service, sent out new guidelines to the governors of the nation's jails. These announced that for the past 30 years the provisions of the 1967 Criminal Justice Act had been interpreted wrongly and many inmates serving consecutive sentences were being kept in longer than they should be. The governors began calculations which would lead to the release of more than 500 prisoners.

He did not tell Michael Howard. But should the Home Secretary have already been aware of the problem?

The revision of the application of the law stemmed from two High Court cases last year. In preparing for them Prison Service staff became concerned at ambiguities in the law. They reported to Derek Lewis, the then Prison Service director-general, who in July 1995 set up a working party to review guidelines.

Lewis warned ministers that the outcome might be troublesome. But before the committee reported, Lewis was controversially sacked by Michael Howard after a series of high-profile prison escapes. Home secretaries, he enunciated, were responsible for policy, but directors were responsible for operations. The cock-up was one of management not policy and therefore Lewis had to go but Howard could stay. There were those, inside the service and out, who thought the Home Secretary was wriggling and were unconvinced by the distinction.

Then, in March this year Howard produced a White Paper which appeared implicitly to acknowledge the existing ambiguity by suggesting that in future judges should decide how much of remand time should be deducted from a prisoner's sentence.

Four months later Lewis's working party reported and Home Office lawyers advised that the service's interpretation of the 1967 law had been wrong for almost 30 years. Richard Tilt - presumably judging that the matter was operational rather than political - sent out the new guidelines to governors and the first prisoners were released from Haverigg Prison, Cumbria, but he did not tell his political master.

Michael Howard was, in any case, preoccupied elsewhere. The day the 19 jailbirds left Haverigg the Home Office was busy leaking the news that its boss was engaged in a major fight to get the Union Jack on the nation's voluntary identity cards.

If he is political rather than operational there is no doubt where those politics lie. All Howard was doing was "asking for longer sentences, trying to keep out undesirable aliens, rebuking weak judges, ejecting squatters and their filth [and] waging war against muggers and burglars" pronounced the voice of reaction, Paul Johnson, writing earlier in the Daily Mail.

Yet for all his praise of Howard's right-wingery even Johnson was forced to concede that the Home Secretary had his drawbacks. He was against hanging and, yes, he does have an ingratiating - "some would say oleaginous" - manner.

Do not under-estimate the potency of that image. In person, say political commentators of more centrist bent, Howard is a likeable chap - bright, sparky, a man of great ability and great charm despite his public persona. And yet even to many Tory supporters he is an oily, shifty, too-clever- by-half, Uriah Heep of a character.

Wriggling, right-wing, smarmy - even as the latest episode in the seemingly endless Howard survival saga began to unfold the caricature was reinforced. Events were only to further strengthen it.

On Tuesday, 20 August, Richard Tilt departed for a two-week walking holiday with his wife in northern Italy. Behind him he left a memorandum for the Home Secretary on "stories which might be of interest" which included a reference to new sentencing guidelines. The next day, with the memo still in the internal post, Howard was wrapped up with the announcement he was to make of his victory over Europe on the Union Jack ID card.

No sooner was the announcement made than the memo from Richard Tilt arrived at the Home Office. Officials telephoned the prisons' minister, Ann Widdecombe, on holiday to tell her of the change. But Widdecombe - who fell out with Howard over the sacking of Lewis, whom she felt was scapegoated - was unable to tell him before he was asked by a Channel 4 television reporter about the new policy and had to confess that he knew nothing.

The next day, last Friday, the national press carried substantial front- page reports about the early release of 50 prisoners. Howard, officials say, "went ballistic" and asked Tilt's deputy, Alan Walker, what was going on. News broke that at least 33 more prisoners had been released.

Howard returned from his constituency determined to sack Tilt too before being persuaded that to lose one director of the prison service might be accounted unfortunate but that losing two might look like carelessness.

At a crisis meeting at the Home Office last Friday evening Howard received advice from a QC, David Pannick, to the effect that the Home Office lawyers may have got the whole thing wrong. Howard telephoned Tilt in Italy and demanded that the policy be reversed immediately. But the prison chief insisted that the change might cause prison riots. That night Howard appeared on Newsnight and announced that the new policy was suspended.

Confronted by reporters in Italy, Tilt proclaimed: "I will not resign" and insisted he would not come back from holiday early. The next day he came back from holiday early.

This Monday morning he was back at his desk, instructed to appear before the Home Secretary on Tuesday with a full report. As he worked on the finishing touches the Sudan Airways plane from Khartoum to Amman was hijacked by Iraqi dissidents and turned in the air for London.

By Tuesday afternoon Tilt had presented his report complete with grovelling apology and the news that 537 - rather than the original estimate of around 80 - prisoners had been released before the shutters came down. So why not sack Tilt? At a press conference a grim-faced Howard replied: "not every failure leads to resignation".

Howard's cunning as a political operator came into play. After the conference he gave a series of interviews to US journalists, forcing the BBC's political correspondent, Nick Jones, to wait until the end so that his interview was curtailed by time. He also backed away, at the last minute, from being interviewed on the next main BBC news magazine, The World Tonight.

It was a clever move. Staff there had been preparing to ask him why the prisons debacle had not been forestalled by the "radar unit" Howard had set up within the prison service around the time of Lewis's sacking. This Home Office monitoring unit, led by a Grade 3 civil servant, was charged with making sure that Howard's policies - which had increased the number of prisoners by 250 a week without a proportionate increase in the prison budget - worked in practice. The unit had been a very aggressive watchdog when it began. So why had it failed now? It was a system he had set up. It answered directly to him. How could he dismiss this as an operational rather than a policy matter?

The questions were never asked. By the time Howard appeared on the radio - on the Today programme the next morning - the Sudan Airways plane had landed at Heathrow. The political agenda had changed, as he knew it would. He answered the questions asked by John Humphries robustly.

"He always does," said Humphries afterwards. "He doesn't hide behind civil servants and briefing notes like some ministers do. He's always ready to have a go and he answers the questions you ask him."

He does not, of course, answer those which his canny news management techniques have ensured are not asked. By yesterday he had moved on to addressing the questions of political asylum which the hijacking raised, treading a careful line between the bloody backbench "send'em back to Saddam" demands and the more sympathetic approach advocated by an unusual alliance between the primeval Terry Dicks and the urbane David Howells.

For the thing, above all, to remember about Michael Howard is that beneath the incredible thick skin and the inability to admit to ever making a mistake there lies not just an indelible faith in his own ability but an unquenchable ambition. He believes he can overcome the residual deep- seated anti-semitism in certain sections of the parliamentary Tory Party to become the compromise candidate of the right when Michael Portillo and John Redwood join battle for the leadership of the Tory Party if it is defeated in the general election.

The wily manoeuvrings of the last few days, and his victory yesterday in court when the judges for once upheld his decision to stop the early releases, suggest that his dream could yet become a nightmare for us all.

While Howard lives on...


May: Michael Howard appointed Home Secretary


Northern Ireland minister Michael Mates resigned, as did

Stephen Merrett, deputy chairman of Lloyd's of London

Environment minister Tim Yeo

Graham Taylor, manager of the England football team

Giuliano Amato, prime minister of Italy

Ted Dexter, chairman of the England cricket selectors


September: Howard resisted demands for him to step down after Semtex was found to have been smuggled into Whitemoor Prison, from which five IRA prisoners and a robber had escaped.

December: Howard rejects calls for his resignation after the publication of a damning report into the armed IRA escape from Whitemoor.


Lord Caithness, Minister for Shipping and Aviation, resigned, as did

Hartley Booth, PPS to Foreign Office minister Douglas Hogg

Michael Brown, MP for Briggs and Cleethorpes and a Government whip

Northern Ireland minister Tim Smith

Trade and Industry minister Neil Hamilton

Silvio Berlusconi, Prime Minister of Italy

Brian Little, manager of Leicester City FC

Ros Hepplewhite, chief executive of the Child Support Agency


January: More jail security blunders - the escape of three "lifers" from Parkhurst Prison, serial killer Frederick West's suicide at Birmingham's Winson Green Prison, and a riot at Humberside's Everthorpe Prison - prompted calls for Howard and Prison Service head Derek Lewis to quit.

April: Howard faced demands for him to resign after the House of Lords decided that his cost-cutting compensation scheme for victims of crime amounted to an abuse of his powers.


Graham Taylor, manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers FC, resigned, as did

Lord Cairns, chief executive merchant bank SG Warburg

Jonathan Aitken, Chief Secretary to the Treasury

Chris Brain, Church of England priest and leader of the rave-style Nine O'Clock Service in Sheffield

Willy Claes, secretary general of NATO


March: Howard ordered by an immigration appeals judge to reconsider his decision to expel Saudi Arabian dissident Mohamed al-Mas'ari from Britain. The following month, the Home Office gave Mr Mas'ari exceptional leave to stay.

May: The mandatory minimum 15-year sentence imposed by Howard on the schoolboy killers of toddler James Bulger is declared unlawful by the High Court.


Lamberto Dini, Prime Minister of Italy, resigned as did

Alan Ball, manager of Manchester City FC