The strange case of Michael Howard, his father's 'lie' and a dirty trick thwarted

After a week dominated by black arts, the Tory leader pre-empts another revelation. By Francis Elliott and Andy McSmith
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Indy Politics

It seemed an astonishing revelation for Michael Howard to make. A little more than a fortnight after he had announced draconian policies on immigration, the Tory leader yesterday admitted his grand- father almost certainly entered and lived in Britain illegally.

It seemed an astonishing revelation for Michael Howard to make. A little more than a fortnight after he had announced draconian policies on immigration, the Tory leader yesterday admitted his grand- father almost certainly entered and lived in Britain illegally.

Why did Mr Howard unburden himself of this family skeleton now - and why in the Daily Mail? In an atmosphere made murky by dirty tricks, an answer was supplied by Mr Howard's unauthorised biographer Michael Crick: he had no choice.

A fortnight ago Mr Crick unearthed the story from the bowels of the Public Records Office in London but wanted to make sure his facts were correct. His decision to check with Mr Howard's press secretary, Guy Black, seems to have cost him his scoop, however. In a damage limitation exercise Mr Howard gave the story in a sympathetic interview in the Mail.

It left Mr Crick crying foul, but saved the Tories a far more embarrassing revelation they could not control on the eve of polling day, when the author had planned to publish.

Mr Crick has founded a career on doing the sort of intellectual spadework for which most journalists have neither time nor inclination.

Given that his specialist subject is prominent Tories it is not surprising that one Conservative wag last week claimed: "The five most terrifying words in the English language are, 'Michael Crick is in reception.'" So when Guy Black saw his name lurking among incoming emails two weeks ago it must have been most unwelcome.

He was right to worry. Examining Mr Howard's father's application for British citizenship in 1947, Mr Crick had found a striking inaccuracy. Bernard Howard claimed that both his parents had died in Romania: in fact, his father, Michael Howard's grandfather, was alive and well and had been living in London since the 1930s.

The explanation for the discrepancy seemed obvious: Maurice Hecht (the family surname was later anglicised) had entered Britain as an illegal immigrant, which his son did not want to bring to the attention of the authorities.

If true, it had enormous political significance. Only that week Mr Howard had announced his party's policies on immigration and asylum. "I come from an immigrant family," he said before announcing that he wanted to set limits on the numbers allowed to claim asylum.

That the Tory leader owes his own citizenship to the sort of deception he is pledging to root out is, to say the least, an acute embarrassment.

But Mr Crick needed to be sure of his ground. It was, he said yesterday, a "terribly dangerous" thing to get wrong. "So I then sent an email to Guy Black explaining this discrepancy in the father's naturalisation files and asking for an explanation."

Mr Black, however, had no intention of giving the Tories' chief tormentor this prize scoop. Instead, a sympathetic interview with the Daily Mail was arranged.

"I have speculated on the reason [for his false application] and I suppose one possibility is that my father might have entered Britain unlawfully," Mr Howard told the paper. "What my father did was wrong. I don't condone it, but I don't feel embarrassed because I have done nothing wrong myself."

The incident is one more sign that now is the season for dark arts. But it is in the nature of those arts that they are most effective when invisible.

Frank Dobson, the former health secretary, used to say that spin doctors are like poisoners: there are famous poisoners and there are successful poisoners - but there are no famous, successful poisoners.

Both sides are playing the same game. Alastair Campbell's fame has become a hindrance to his effectiveness - not that Labour's head of strategic election communications was dodging the limelight last Wednesday. On the day when the Westminster village was buzzing with chatter and jokes about his maladroit use of a BlackBerry, Mr Campbell strode into the Central Lobby, letting it be seen that he was still in town. He made light of his accidentally sending an expletive-riddled message to the BBC, for which he had to apologise. It had given journalists - or "the bastards", as he described them - something to write, he remarked. Then he went for tea with a Tory MP, Andrew Mitchell, who is one of several Tories who admit to a sneaking fondness for the celebrated spin doctor.

Mr Campbell's return has provoked mixed feelings in both political parties. Many Labour MPs said they were delighted that he is back. He is an answer to the anxiety gripping Labour's headquarters about voter apathy.

The controversy has reinforced the message Tony Blair wants conveyed that the election is a fight between Labour and the Conservatives, in which other parties are irrelevant. It has helped keep the Liberal Democrats out of the news for two weeks, which suits both big parties.

The Tory spin-doctors have set themselves three tasks. They have to make the party leadership look trustworthy, to make Michael Howard resemble a human being, and to remind voters of the thing they most dislike about Labour. They have made progress on two out of three.

Television viewers were last night treated to an hour- long television portrait of Mr Howard with the telling title No More Mr Nasty. Despite a few uncomfortable moments for Mr Howard, the film gave the impression that there really is a human being lurking somewhere beneath his slick lawyer's exterior.

Now that we know the Tory leader's grandfather was an illegal immigrant, perhaps even that will help to soften his image. In the world of spin, almost anything is possible.

THE PARTIES AND THEIR SPINNERS-IN-CHIEF

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL

The "daddy" is back and the joint is already jumping. A man who's ruffled more feathers than Bernard Matthews (and wrung more necks) the celebrity spinmeister might not be able to work his BlackBerry but he can still press the media's buttons.

Others in the team:

Philip Gould, Tony Blair's favourite pollster has informed every general election campaign since 1987. Alan Milburn, Milburn's return to the Cabinet, as election co-ordinator, was the final proof that Gordon Brown had been elbowed out. Ian McCartney, the party chairman, is the acceptable face of old Labour, in charge of motivating the membership. David Miliband, Milburn's deputy, with a brain as big as a planet, is in charge of the manifesto. Sally Morgan, the long-serving baroness, is Blair's personal link with the party and trade unions.

Ad agency: TBWA, run by Trevor Beattie, best known for devising the FCUK ads for French Connection.

Latest slogan: Britain Forward Not Back.

LYNTON CROSBY

He's the Aussie contender with at least three election victories Down Under already. Is Britain ready for the "dog whistle" (sending subliminal messages), or the "wedge" (dividing working- and middle-class opposition supporters)? We're about to find out.

Others in the team:

Guy Black, the Tory communications director, previously headed the Press Complaints Commission. He deals with the newspapers but tries to keep out his own name. Rachel Whetstone, Michael Howard's former special adviseras Home Secretary, has been brought back from lucrative PR work. Stephen Sherbourne, Howard's chief of staff, is the voice of experience in a young team, having worked for Edward Heath and as political secretary to Margaret Thatcher. Liam Fox, made party chairman after organising Howard's leadership coup, believes in keeping to the right.

Ad agency: Immediate Sales, an offshoot of M&C Saatchi.

Latest slogan: Are You Thinking What We're Thinking?

TIM RAZZALL

"Lord Dazzle of Razzall" has pulled off some spectacular upsets in his time in by-election bouts. The smooth-talking peer answers his leader's trickier questions for him. Not averse to dabbling in the dark arts when needs must.

Others in the team:

Chris Rennard, the chief executive of the campaign team and chief number-cruncher, he has spent his whole adult life working for the party. Sandy Walkington, a new arrival, is in charge of the party's press and media work. He is BT's former director of communications. Jackie Rowley, Charles Kennedy's media adviser, will be with the party leader everywhere he goes.

Ad agency: Banc, run by Robert Bean. Interesting election fact number 94 is that the Lib Dems' agency also represents Burberry, chav label of choice.

Latest slogan: not published yet.

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