The Howard machine blows its circuits

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Sometimes, when Mr Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, stands at the despatch box, it seems that the skin and bone of his head have become a translucent shell, through which it is possible to observe and to admire the intricate workings of his political mind.

Here - beside the left frontal lobe - is his populism receptor, keenly attuned to the minutest barometric change in the electorate's air pressure. Attached to the cortex is a meter, measuring what his colleagues will and will not wear. Between them run a series of electrical currents, along synaptic pathways, testing this position or that proposal and computing their outcomes.

But never has this superb machine been placed under so much strain as this week on the subject of Dunblane and guns. And yesterday the whirring and clanking was audible throughout the Chamber, as Mr Howard struggled with the contradictions of his position.

His is, as he always reminds us, the party of law and order. But it is also the party of shooters - who cannot see why their enjoyment should be curtailed because of the actions of a few. It is the party of toughness on criminals, but also the freedom of the individual. It is the party of prisons, but also the party that loathes the nanny-state.

Ever since Labour dispensed with the Wait-for-Cullen absurdity, Mr Howard has been aware from the public response that the libertarian view was going to lose out. So he had to come to the House with a "tough" plan of action, hoping that not too many would ask the obvious question: if guns are so awful, what exactly was the Government doing between Hungerford and Dunblane?

But the proposals also had to give something to what is called "the shooting fraternity". Thus did Mr Howard baulk at a complete ban on .22 weapons, quoting Cullen as saying they were "four-to-six times less powerful", and could be kept at secure gun clubs. His statement ended up with some vintage hypocrisy. "I urge the parties opposite to support that Bill. The country expects nothing less".

Jack Straw, his opposite number, had only been allowed to see the Cullen report and the Home Secretary's statement a paltry three or four hours before Mr Howard stood up in the House to make it. Nevertheless Straw's position had, for once, the immense strength of consistency and he spoke well. Ban the lot, he said.

Ah, replied Mr Howard, the synaptic canals pulsing, there we have it, the difference between us and Labour. "We believe it is possible to give the public protection without the need for a total prohibition".

Immediately, the Howard plan began to come apart in front of our eyes. David Mellor put his finger on part of it. If it was going to be made so incredibly difficult to exercise a legitimate right to shoot hand- guns, then why not ban them altogether?

Jack Straw, whose mind is not as dull as some believe, called for a free vote. Now, there is no justification for this, other than taking pleasure in watching the Howard machine blow itself up. But thus, dear readers, is history made.