One hundred days and a few sleepless nights

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The Independent Online

I first noticed Mr Michael Howard shortly after he had become Member for Folkestone in 1983. From time to time he would pop up on the backbenches to make speeches that were meant to be helpful to the government. Think of a combination of Mr Ben Bradshaw, Mr Chris Bryant and Mr Eric Joyce, then add a measure of forensic skill which none of these possesses, and you have some idea of what Mr Howard was like in those days. If Mrs Margaret Thatcher's ministers were in trouble, as they often were, the cry would go out from the Whips Office: send for Howard. And Mr Howard would duly oblige.

He showed a particular aptitude for defending the indefensible. He was specially assiduous in supporting Sir Geoffrey Howe's expulsion of the trade unionists from GCHQ Cheltenham. In fact it was not the then Foreign Secretary's cause at all but Mrs Thatcher's and that of assorted idiots in Security. Geoffrey was against the whole move but, as usual, carried the can. And he had no more fervent defender than Mr Howard.

Such industry, and such usefulness, would not long go unrewarded. Nor did they. Junior ministries of, however, growing degrees of seniority quickly followed when Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister. But it was under Mr John Major that his career went forth and multiplied, culminating in the Home Office.

The late Sir Stephen Tumim, the Inspector of Prisons, considered him not only the worst but also the most disobliging Home Secretary with whom he had ever had to deal. You may say: well, Tumim would have thought that. Just so. Yet there does seem something a little over-punitive about a minister who had some poor wretch's potted plants confiscated because prison was not meant to be a place of harmless diversion.

Quite apart from his faith in prisons ("Prison works!"), Mr Howard was always being over-ruled by the courts. Scarcely a month went by without a decision from the Court of Appeal or a lower court saying that the Home Secretary had acted unlawfully. This was before the Human Rights Act. The judges were deciding usually under the rules of judicial review which had been developed since the 1960s: the most important constitutional development of modern times.

Naturally, the Labour frontbenchers were exultant in opposition. Have a care, I counselled: your turn will come next. I told them, but they wouldn't listen. There were no more convinced believers in the infinite wisdom of the judiciary than the representatives of the People's Party when Mr Howard was Home Secretary. Their turn duly came when Mr Jack Straw took over the office. He too found himself being over-ruled all the time. My impression - for I have not done any sums - is that Mr David Blunkett is being repulsed judicially with even greater frequency. What is not a matter of impression but manifest to all is that Mr Blunkett is responding to his reverses with a combination of petulance and aggression which both Mr Straw and Mr Howard managed to control, just about.

Perhaps this is one reason why Mr Tony Blair, in his occasional attacks on Mr Howard, does not mention his spell at the Home Office. One might think it had never happened. The other reason may be that Mr Blair suspects that the people may well approve of Mr Howard's stern, plant-confiscating regimen. At all events, when Mr Blair wishes to point to Mr Howard's past delinquencies, he invariably chooses his earlier spell as Secretary for Employment. It is not an obviously convincing period for Mr Blair to recall, for at the end of it, in 1992, the Conservatives won an election. So Mr Howard at Employment was clearly not as disastrous as all that.

Mr Howard has succeeded in annoying Mr Blair as Mr William Hague and Mr Iain Duncan Smith did not. Nor, for that matter, did Mr Major, when it was Mr Blair who was Leader of the Opposition. Causing annoyance is not a guaranteed way of winning an election but it is better then nothing. As Harold Wilson convincingly demonstrated in 1963-64, it can be a great help. Mr Howard's trouble is a tendency to behave too much like counsel for the prosecution.

Several weeks before Lord Hutton's report he succeeded in embarrassing Mr Blair at Prime Minister's Questions by drawing a contrast between the evidence to the inquiry and what Mr Blair had said to reporters on the aeroplane from Washington about the leaking of Dr David Kelly's name. In effect, he accused the Prime Minister of being a liar. Mr Blair advised him to await Lord Hutton's report but looked uneasy about his advice. Mr Howard should have enjoyed his triumph and, next week, gone on to something else. Instead he asked the very same question. This time Mr Blair looked less uneasy and people were becoming bored with the whole performance.

When Lord Hutton came to report, he not only failed to provide any weapons for Mr Howard, releasing Mr Blair from custody without a stain on his coffee mug. More, Lord Hutton failed to deal properly with the specific question which Mr Howard had raised: what Mr Blair had said to the reporters and what he and various others had said to the inquiry. Lord Hutton did not ask the journalists concerned what Mr Blair had said. Like the German forces going round the Maginot Line and into Belgium, he evaded the point, leaving Mr Howard not so much high and dry as looking distinctly on the bedraggled side.

There was an obvious solution which Mr Howard neglected. This was not to accept Lord Hutton's report as he did but to reject it, as did most of the newspapers, though not, officially, the BBC (for the broadcasters' real views are quite different). After all, Wilson rejected Lord Radcliffe's report on the D-Notice Affair in 1967, even though he was Prime Minister rather than Leader of the Opposition and had himself set up the inquiry in the first place. However, I am not saying that in the circumstances this was the right course for Mr Howard to follow: merely that it was a possible course. He preferred to accept temporary humiliation instead and, in the cant phrase of the moment, to move on.

Perhaps he is now in the process of working up to his old pace, like a fast bowler recovering from injury. Or perhaps he is changing his style, as a bowler often will as he grows older, relying more on guile and other devices. PMQs, far from being a hallowed part of the British constitution, is a procedure dating only from 1961. Harold Macmillan and Hugh Gaitskell were models of courtesy, even though they disliked each other with roughly equal strength. The gladiatorial style started with Wilson and Alec Douglas-Home, Wilson being the chap with the trident. Mr Howard might return to the older ways. The voters would probably prefer it, though his backbenchers would not. But I doubt whether he will, for I do not think it is in his prosecuting nature.

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