Tory knives come out for Howard

Widdecombe ready for bitter showdown; Former minister threatens to join attack
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The Independent Online
Michael Howard, the former Home Secretary, faces unprecedented public criticism from colleagues this week as he presses forward with his challenge for the Tory leadership.

In the case of Ann Widdecombe, his former prisons minister, coded language has gone by the board. This evening, Ms Widdecombe will take her feud with Mr Howard to new heights as she delivers to his home advance warning of accusations she will make in the Commons tomorrow. She is calling for the release of a Home Office document she believes will show Mr Howard lied to Parliament.

Less theatrically, but potentially just as seriously, another former ministerial colleague of Mr Howard's, Charles Wardle, is threatening to question the propriety of two City inquiries Mr Howard helped set up while a junior minister at the Department of Trade and Industry in the 1980s.

In what is developing into one of the most bizarre political grudge matches in recent memory, Mr Howard will hit back at Ms Widdecombe on television today, hoping his resilience will prove he is the man to take on Tony Blair at the head of the Conservative Party.

Ms Widdecombe believes she can scupper Mr Howard's prospects. She will demand the release of the Home Office's account of a meeting central to the bitter row between herself and Mr Howard over the sacking of prisons director Derek Lewis and a statement Mr Howard made to theCommons. The Civil Service minute of the meeting on 10 January 1995 backs Mr Howard's denial to MPs that he threatened to over-rule Mr Lewis if the Prison Service chief failed to dismiss the governor of Parkhurst jail, John Marriott. Ms Widdecombe claims that the more detailed note made by Mr Howard's private secretary, Miss J MacNaughton, supports her case that Mr Howard did threaten to over-rule Mr Lewis, and subsequently misled MPs.

On Friday, Ms Widdecombe visited the Home Office asking to see documents, which as a former minister she is entitled to do. She has so far not been given permission to see the verbatim note on the grounds that it had never formally been copied to her. Ms Widdecombe argues she had seen the document while at the Home Office. Civil servants are still considering her request.

Another former member of Mr Howard's Home Office ministerial team, Charles Wardle, MP for Bexhill and Battle, is threatening a further weakening of Mr Howard's position. He is pressing for a debate on the propriety of DTI company inquiries into the Guinness takeover of Distillers and the House of Fraser purchase by the Fayeds that were established while Mr Howard was corporate affairs minister in the mid-Eighties. Mr Wardle's concern arose while at the Home Office over Mr Howard's behaviour in relation to the citizenship application from Mohamed Al-Fayed and his brother, Ali.

Mr Wardle maintains that the decision to send in the inspectors was biased. On Guinness, he argues that in the run-up to the 1987 election, the government was determined to stifle Labour criticism about the City and ordered an inquiry into the Guinness takeover of Distillers. "It will not be lost on anyone," Mr Wardle has told friends, "that the corporate affairs minister in both cases was Michael Howard."

Curse of Al-Fayed, page 18