Widdecombe: The man who misled House without lying

Tory leadership: Ex-minister delivers fatal blow to former Home Secretary
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The Independent Online
Michael Howard's hopes of leading the Conservative Party were scuppered last night when his former deputy accused him in Parliament of "semantic prestidigitation". In a scathing performance heard by MPs largely in fascinated silence, Ann Widdecombe delivered blow after blow to the credibility of the former home secretary.

Mr Howard sat apparently impassive on the Opposition front bench as his former minister of state ended both his political career and her own. "My Right Honourable and Learned Friend has an exquisite way with words," she said, accusing him of displaying immense skill in misleading the House without ever actually telling an outright lie. She then went on to add that Mr Howard "has a problem in that his first reaction to attack is denial and refuge in semantic prestidigitation".

The only heckling from government benches came as Miss Widdecombe admitted she should have resigned over the sacking of the former director of the Prison Service, Derek Lewis. Mr Howard should have been open with his fellow MPs about his disagreement with Mr Lewis in 1995 over the suspension of the governor of Parkhurst Prison, she claimed.

"He could not do so, of course, because he had dug a hole for himself over policy and operations, and he would never have had to dig such a hole had he been prepared to keep the director-general in place," she said. Mr Howard's actions had cost the taxpayer quarter of a million pounds.

Miss Widdecombe praised the achievements of Mr Lewis, which had transformed the Prison Service from a desperate situation. "It was for those reasons that ministers, very senior civil servants, the Prisons Board and its non-executives urgently advised the then home secretary that he should not sack Mr Lewis. It was for those reasons that two out of four non-executives resigned in protest."

Mr Howard had drawn a distinction between policy and operations at the Prison Service to save himself from the firing- line following the Learmont Report, Miss Widdecombe told the House. As a result, she claimed, he misled the House over whether he threatened to instruct Mr Lewis at a meeting over the fate of the Governor of Parkhurst, John Marriott.

She posed these crucial and potentially damaging questions to Mr Howard: "Why did he say he had not personally told Mr Lewis that Mr Marriott should be suspended immediately, when he had?

"... Why did he say that he was giving the House a full account when he knows very well that important issues which were being discussed in the House were in fact omitted from the minutes which he laid before them as a full account?

"Will he now, in order to clear any doubt at all that may exist in the minds of Honourable Members, ask the current Home Secretary to release the full transcript of the meeting?"

Mr Howard, who promised to reply in detail to the allegations later on in yesterday's debate on home-affairs aspects of the Queen's Speech, was backed by another of his former ministers, David Maclean, who is backing Mr Howard's leadership bid.

It had been a great honour to work with Mr Howard over a five-year period in two different departments, he said. "He is a man of integrity who gets my full respect not because he was my boss but because I believe he is a decent man and deserves it."