A dirty fight indeed, but Mr Howard deserved to win

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The Independent Online
IT HAS not been a good week for the People's Party. It has certainly not been a good week for New Labour. In the elections for the Shadow Cabinet - or le cabinet fanto^me, as the French accurately but somehow more graphically translate it - Old Labour proved triumphant, even to the extent of preferring yet another chap called Clarke, in this case Mr Tom Clarke. Worse than this: the Opposition was defeated more comprehensively than on any occasion since Lord Jenkins annihilated Lord Hailsham over the escape of George Blake.

Now, as then, the debate involved prisons and escapes. This time the part of Lord Jenkins was played by Mr Michael Howard; while filling in for Lord Hailsham was one of New Labour's few representatives in the Shadow Cabinet, Mr Jack Straw.

Not even Mr Straw's mother would claim that, as a debater, he was Lord Hailsham's equal. Impressive performer though Mr Howard undoubtedly is, he still has some way to go before he possesses Lord Jenkins's parliamentary skills. But on this occasion the difference in class was greater. Over Blake, we saw two contenders for the world championship. With Mr Derek Lewis, we witnessed an aspirant for the European title fighting a youngster who should never have been allowed out of the gym on his own.

Just so, say the writers in the enlightened press. The House is not, never has been, a forum for arriving at the truth. Accordingly Thursday's debate does not really matter. Not so. Mr Blair and Mr Straw started all this - or, rather, Mr Blair did, when he discomfited Mr John Major at Prime Minister's Questions on Tuesday. They knew that over half the crowd would be noisily against them.

To call Mr David Shaw an animal is to defame not merely domestic pets but the beasts of the field and the creatures of the jungle, who comport themselves with greater dignity than the honourable member for Dover. Mr Terry Dicks of Hayes is reminiscent of the first figure in the line of drawings in the children's encyclopaedia illustrating the Ascent of Man. Poor Mr Straw had these and others yelling and gesturing at him. The referee, the Deputy Speaker, Mr Michael Morris, proved ineffectual. But, significantly, it was one of the party's young intellectuals, Mr Bernard Jenkin from Colchester North, who first put Mr Straw down. He asked simply whether Labour would have dismissed Mr Lewis. Mr Straw could provide no answer. From that moment he was finished.

This should give us a hint that Labour's catastrophe was not solely, as the Guardian and the Independent are trying to claim, the result of Mr Howard's low forensic skills, of Mr Straw's inadequacies or of a boorish audience. The Labour case contained as many ambiguities as one of the later novels of Henry James, though it was not so elegantly expressed.

The error lay in coming into possession of a small piece of exclusive information - about whether Mr John Marriott, the Governor of Parkhurst, should have been suspended or moved to other duties, and the role of Mr Howard in the matter - and then turning it into a motion of censure on the Home Secretary. What would have been a perfectly acceptable, even moderately interesting story in either of these papers was transformed by a naive Mr Blair and an incompetent Mr Straw into a great State Trial which, as things turned out, went spectacularly wrong. It is not that Mr Howard won by parliamentary sleight of hand. On the merits of the case, he deserved to win.

Labour's previous view of Mr Lewis was that he was something of a nincompoop who had managed to get on the privatisation bandwagon, in this case of prisons. From time to time there were scornful references to escaped prisoners and to consequential increases in his emoluments. He might not be quite so reprehensible as Mr Cedric Brown. But he was certainly getting on that way. Then, in a moment, in a twinkling of Mr Blair's eye, he was transmogrified not only into a great prison reformer, a veritable John Howard or Elizabeth Fry, but also into a martyr of the Movement, his name to be recited at party conferences still to come: "Keir Hardie... Nye Bevan... Derek Lewis..."

"Who was that Derek Lewis, then?"

"I think he was the Welsh trade unionist that was put into Parkhurst jail by the repressive Tory government of his day."

Nor is it at all clear what it was that Mr Howard did or omitted to do which was demonstrably wrong. The primary charge, though unmentioned in the motion, was that he had misled Parliament over the decision to suspend Mr Marriott. But Mr Lewis himself said before a select committee that the decision had been his. He said the same to Sir David Frost on television. Labour claims that the rules under which he worked compelled him to lie, if necessary, to parliamentary committees. Mr Howard denies this. But as far as I can see there is nothing in the rules that makes someone in Mr Lewis's position tell fibs on TV.

In any case, does it matter? What difference does it make? It is evident that Mr Howard wanted Mr Marriott out quickly, whereas Mr Lewis wished to ease his passage. Mr Howard's view prevailed, which was neither surprising nor wrong. Whether what happened is described as his or Mr Lewis's "decision" is a matter of words.

Labour's case further involved a confusion between the dismissal, or whatever one chooses to call it, of Mr Marriott by Mr Lewis (or Mr Howard) and the dismissal of Mr Lewis by Mr Howard alone. This confusion was presumably deliberate, undertaken to muddy the waters for political purposes. I cannot believe that Mr Straw and Mr Blair are so befuddled that they cannot see the difference. With the dismissal of Mr Marriott, we are concerned with a minister exceeding his powers. In fact ministers are forever exceeding their powers in this field. They did so with the nationalised industries. They continue to do the same with the new-fangled agencies. If Mr Howard exceeded his powers over Mr Marriott, it demonstrates Mr Lewis's theoretical independence. Accordingly it weakens rather than strengthens Labour's case for Mr Howard's resignation, whether with or in place of Mr Lewis's dismissal.

There is no doubt that Mr Howard was entitled to dismiss Mr Lewis following the Learmont Report and that there was no requirement on him to resign himself. After the Aberfan disaster there were calls, in the event ignored, for Lord Robens to resign as chairman of the Coal Board. There was no suggestion that the then Minister of Power, Lord Marsh, should resign too. There is no general principle of individual ministerial responsibility, unless the minister either chooses to accept it (as Lord Carrington did over the Falklands) or is thrown to the wolves by the Prime Minister (as Sir Leon Brittan was by Lady Thatcher). Collective responsibility is all, individual responsibility subsumed under it; and there is no arguing with the brute force of a majority.