Mr Howard was seeking Cabinet backing for an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill, which is currently passing through the House of Commons, which would stipulate that 'life means life' for some convicted killers.
Although Mr Howard had written to the Prime Minister looking for support, John Major was not at last night's meeting, which is believed to have comprised ministers with an interest in the criminal justice system, such as Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the Lord Chancellor.
It is believed that one of the reasons for the idea's rejection was the problem of creating a small class of prisoners who would have nothing to lose. Opposition in the House of Lords from judges, who might see it as interference in judicial discretion to recommend sentences, may have been another factor.
Nevertheless, sources suggested that, in the future, Mr Howard will use his quasi-judicial role in considering individual release dates for police killers 'very, very carefully' to ensure that they are not released until they are very old or infirm. The current minimum sentence is 20 years.
His move was in response to concern about the number of murders of police officers and the rise in serious attacks on them in recent years. Although yesterday's rejection will be seen as another defeat for Mr Howard on top of the destruction of much of the Police Bill in the Lords, he knows he has won favour among the police and many Tory backbenchers for his attempt.
Mr Howard is still considering whether or not to introduce another amendment to the Bill giving police powers to conduct pre-emptive stop and search operations in areas where they have intelligence about criminal activity.
Yesterday's decision was welcomed by penal reformers but disappointed the police service. Richard Coyles, chairman of the Police Federation, said: 'We believe it would have sent a clear signal to criminals that violence against police officers was not acceptable. It also could have put the brakes on calls for the routine arming of police officers.'