Can you solve the Michael Howard mystery?

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Today I hope to settle once and for all the Michael Howard problem. The Michael Howard problem is a simple one: What does he think he is up to? Or to put it another way, who does he think he is? It's a bit like the Hamlet problem, I suppose: is he really mad or just pretending to be mad?

I am not the only one working on this problem. There has come into existence a very worthy body called the Penal League for Howard Reform, whose sole aim is to get rid of Michael Howard. I applaud their efforts, as I am sure we all do, but even when he has gone, the mystery will still remain: what made him tick?

Well, what I propose to do today is bring you the dozen or so leading theories being considered by experts, and ask you, the readers, to vote on them. Here they are and here is the question:

Which of the following hypotheses do you think most nearly explains the Michael Howard mystery?

1. The reason Michael Howard has been kept in office as Home Secretary even though he is a disaster is that he is the secret Tory election weapon, assuming that the Tories want to lose the election. Not many Tories wanted or expected to win last time, and they are deeply depressed at the idea of winning again.

What's in it for them? They ran out of ideas and energy a long time ago and all their chums have received their perks and titles by now. If they want to be sure of losing the next election, they have to alienate the public by pushing forward their most unlikeable figures into the limelight, such as Michael Portillo, Brian Mawhinney and Michael Howard, but especially Michael Howard.

2. Michael Howard is in fact not Home Secretary at all but a very sophisticated stand-up comedian whose act is a deliberate parody of all the knee-jerk reactions the right-wing is always accused of. He looks a bit like Ben Elton. He has deliberate catchphrases to make people fall about (eg, "Prison works!"). He has wacky ideas (eg, he thinks that the answer to Britain's excessive prison population is to build many more prisons and fill them up, too). Once he has got his timing right, he could be really good.

3. The intelligence departments over which he presides have dug up some dirt on the Prime Minister which Michael Howard would use if Major ever tried to fire him. In fact, which he has probably used already, several times.

4. Many people are under the impression that Howard comes from immigrant stock from Eastern Europe. Immigrant stock, yes. Eastern Europe, no. Mr Michael Howard is actually an alien from another world called Xygmunt who has orders to prepare for an invasion of Earth by Xygmunt forces by locking up as many of the population as he can. He also has instructions to test human intelligence by overloading them with ludicrous proposals for reorganising human society to see how far he can go. Xygmunt will have to invade soon, as they are being hard pressed by their traditional galactic rivals, the people of Crantoth, the world from which John Redwood comes.

5. Mr Howard has friends in the construction industry who would do very well out of orders to build more prisons.

6. Mr Howard really genuinely believes what he says.

7. Mr Howard is bonkers.

8. Mr Howard really genuinely believes what he says and is completely bonkers.

9. Mr Howard is working on a TV programme to be shown after he leaves office. It is a descendant of Candid Camera, and it involves putting hidden cameras on Mr Howard so that we can see the reactions of people to his loony ideas. Watch the Lord Chief Justice froth with rage! Watch the head of the Prison Service being sacked! Watch the top judges in the land rule yet again that Howard has broken the law! All secretly filmed and all soon to be seen on the new cult hit programme Howard's About!

10. Mr Howard hates being Home Secretary but will not lower himself to resigning, so has decided to be fired for outrageous behaviour. He is privately in some despair, as he cannot imagine how outrageous he yet has to become before he is fired.

So there you are. Once you have decided which theory works best, phone the Home Office and give them your vote. They are waiting to hear from you.