Cautionary tale for those who love to show off

Michael Howard has come unstuck after a week of heady self-promotion, reports Paul Routledge
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The Independent Online
When Michael Howard achieved his great ambition three years ago to become Home Secretary, he promptly called in a posse of political journalists to explain why his promotion was so vital and important. Apparently brimming over with indignation at the state of things, he told his audience he was going to crack down on street crime. He had personal knowledge of a schoolboy who had been chased from a railway station by a vagrant. This sort of thing, he said, was intolerable, and he would put an end to it.

It was dramatic, and it made news. The press then went in search of the boy whose ordeal looked set to influence the course of crime policy in Britain, and it did not take long to discover that he was none other than the Home Secretary's own son. Mr Howard had wanted to hit the headlines, but now the publicity backfired. It was not to be the last time. The Home Secretary has an uncomfortable way of combining a thirst for publicity with a tendency to get into scrapes. Last week was a case in point.

Mr Howard should have been on firm ground. It was all arranged through Central Office: he was fronting a propaganda drive on law and order. It began so well. He stood up against Europe and for the Union flag on the new voluntary identity cards. He then had the satisfaction of seeing "Howard wins battle over ID cards" headlines in the papers and then he crowned it, and bolstered his tough image, by authorising the police to use CS gas sprays.

Then everything went wrong and he found himself mired in a scandal so grisly he had to deny he was going to resign. Suddenly, he was the minister who mistakenly kept offenders in jail too long, at a prospective cost to the taxpayer of pounds 100m. Or else he was the minister who freed hardened convicts early and put taxpayers' money in their pockets to boot.

If Mr Howard had not flown so high, he might not have had so far to fall. If he had not embarked on an exaggerated week of showing off, he would not now look so foolish. Why did he do it? Why be so busy in the silly season? Why, at a time when most voters were hiding from Glenda Jackson on the beaches of Spain, was he at his desk in Whitehall, and on television screens everywhere, banging the law and order drum?

The answer is that Mr Howard, rarely listed among the favourites to succeed John Major as party leader, none the less apparently believes the prize could be his. He recently suffered a setback, however, when political responsibility for fighting Labour's devolution plans - a task that should rightfully be the Home Secretary's - was handed to Stephen Dorrell.

So Mr Howard needed to try harder. This summer he had some cards to play which Labour would have difficulty trumping. The moment - a few weeks short of the party conference and in a quiet period when nothing much else was happening - seemed propitious.

The ID card was the first. The loyal Daily Telegraph reported that it was "his pet project ... part of his attempt to put the Tories at the forefront of the war against crime". It was going to do all sorts of things. It would cut social security fraud. It would prevent tricksters posing as water board officials gaining entry to people's homes. It would be a driving licence at home and a passport abroad.

Some Conservatives objected to the inclusion of the 12-star Euro- flag and some complained at the prospect that the Union flag might be left off to avoid offending Northern Irish nationalists. In Cabinet, there was a genuine debate, Mr Howard stood firm and the Northern Ireland problem was finessed by the simple measure of procrastination: no change for five years, then a review.

It seemed a smart compromise, and Mr Howard was certainly very pleased with it. If there was any doubt about the sub-text, leadership rival John Redwood removed it by denouncing the cards. They were voluntary, and therefore would do nothing to fight crime. Moreover, it marked "the end of the world where, if you were British, you did not need a flag in your room, a symbol on your driving licence or even the name of your country on the postage stamp". In other words, Mr Howard was no true Eurosceptic.

All this was grist to Mr Howard's mill, and he toured televison and radio stations on Thursday putting his case, claiming victory and, for good measure, explaining his bold decision on the CS gas spray. Everything was going swimmingly, until the news broke about the prison fiasco.