Howard upstaged in bid for the helm

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Michael Howard faces being upstaged by Ann Widdecombe in what was to be his showcase to convince Tory MPs that he is the one man tough enough to take on Tony Blair.

The former home secretary, say his supporters, was hoping to use the Queen's Speech law and order debate on Monday to score against Jack Straw and gather votes for his leadership bid.

But Ann Widdecombe declared yesterday that she would use the debate to present details which will allegedly prove that Mr Howard misled the House of Commons over the sacking of the director general of the prison service, Derek Lewis. She embarked on this action after the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, refused her request to make a personal statement and also for an adjournment debate.

Mr Howard's position was further undermined when he came under attack from a second former Home Office minister, Sir Peter Lloyd. "Ann Widdecombe is a decent person," he said, "and I am sure she is following her conscience in what she is doing.

"I do not want to go into matters of character regarding Michael Howard, but I do think he was totally wrong in his actions regarding Derek Lewis. He should have congratulated Mr Lewis in the job he had done, instead of sacking him. What he did was totally unjust."

Mr Howard was expected to open the debate on Monday. But his supporters were saying last night he may wind-up the debate in order to reply fully to Miss Widdecombe's charges.

The former prisons minister said she was so certain of her facts about Mr Howard's behaviour that she would be prepared to repeat her speech outside the Commons with no protection from a libel writ.

Miss Widdecombe believes that Mr Howard knows the strength of the documentation she has access to, and will be carrying out a "semantical damage limitations exercise".

In an article in the Spectator magazine yesterday Mr Howard described Ann Widdecombe as a "good prisons minister with whom I agreed on most terms". But he added "She might like to reflect, when she alleges that I misled MPs, that the civil servants whose duty it is to draw to the attention of ministers any statement in the House which may have been misleading did not do so - for the very good reason that I did not mislead".

Miss Widdecombe, in response, asked Mr Howard whether he had on one occasion corrected a misleading statement he made to MPs. In January l995, at a Home Affairs Select Committee hearing, Gerry Bermingham asked Mr Howard whether the lack of geophones (an alarm mechanism) at Parkhurst Prison was due to money having to be diverted to house the expanding inmate population.

Mr Howard responded that was not the case. He was advised later by civil servants this was not the case. Miss Widdecombe said: "I want him to say whether he ever corrected the misleading statement he had made to MPs."