Amid all the trivia about Michael Howard flung at newspaper readers over the past week, a crucial fact has been omitted. At the heart of Howard's political career there lies a whopping defamation: that crime fell because of his policies as Home Secretary. This was the ace in his play for the leadership. It is a lie.
This much at least is true: between 1993 and 1997, when Michael Howard happened to be at the Home Office, crime fell by 18 per cent. To imply there is a causal relationship between the two is unsustainable. It is not sexy, but the truth is, as one of the world's leading prison experts, Professor Andrew Coyle, explains: "You have to be very cautious in attributing changes in the crime rate to individual policies, because there are such a massive range of factors that affect crime. It is very, very hard to find evidence that increasing prison numbers, the keynote Howard policy, actually reduces crime."
We can say two things with certainty: when Howard became Home Secretary, crime was already falling, as it was in many European countries. Second, the British economy was moving into an upswing which continued throughout his tenure, and it has been proven that there is a very strong relationship between economic growth and falling crime. (If you plot the crime rate and economic health on a graph, the curves rise and fall together).
There is another near-lethal blow to Howard's self-aggrandising claims, although it cannot be argued conclusively. (Those of us in favour of rehabilitation and treating prisoners decently should not play the simplistic Howard game of claiming absolute evidence when it does not exist). It is that the fall in crime overseen by Howard was due to his liberal predecessors rather than his own hard right policies.
Mr Howard feeds off the naïve belief that the Home Secretary pulls a lever in Whitehall on Monday and crime falls in Middlesborough on Wednesday. All serious analysts of crime deride this as at best ignorant and at worst dishonest. There is a time lag in Home Office policy: the effects of most of David Blunkett's decisions will be felt when he is prattling around the House of Lords and publishing collections of his doggerel poetry.
Some readers will ask: what difference does it make? Weren't Howard's predecessors for more than a decade all Tory Home Secretaries? The same party gets the credit. It seems counter-intuitive now, but for most of the Tory years law and order policy remained fairly moderate. Margaret Thatcher's own beliefs were barking-right - she voted consistently in favour of bringing back hanging in free votes, for example - but she was too busy fighting other battles to conquer this agenda too, so she mostly left the Home Office to the wets. The extremism only set in after she had been dethroned and John Major appointed Mr Howard.
Liberal-minded Home Secretaries William Whitelaw and Douglas Hurd promoted non-custodial punishments, such as community service (which has been found to yield a 3 per cent lower reoffending rate) and the greater use of cautions. This agenda was probably more driven by the desire to save money from the vast prisons budget than a conversion to the cause of rehabilitation, although Douglas Hurd's recent memoirs and his support for the Prison Reform Trust suggest that he did have a sincere attachment to this cause.
Whatever the motives, the effect was the same. Professor Coyle explains: "The impressive Home Secretaries are the ones who resisted the sound bite culture and took the long view. It is quite possible to argue that it was the foundations laid by Whitelaw and Hurd that caused the fall in crime under Howard." It will be a vicious irony if a far-right Home Secretary is allowed to take the curtain call for the onstage achievements of predecessors who loathe his approach.
Exponents of Mr Howard's "prison works" philosophy point to the US, where an incredible two million people are in jail and crime has fallen. They do not mention that crime was falling in America before the prison-building bonanza, nor that the US has been going through a period of extraordinary economic growth for most of this time.
Mr Howard is a ferociously intelligent man. I fear he chose policies he knew would be ineffective in order to boost his own tabloid standing. Derek Lewis, who was famously director general of the Prison Service for England and Wales for most of Mr Howard's time at the Home Office, has exposed the way in which Mr Howard thought as Home Secretary - and why Ann Widdecombe made the famous accusation against him. In his book Hidden Agendas, he explains: "It became clear that Howard was concerned almost exclusively with public perceptions. The long-term benefits of educational programmes or maintaining ties with families were, he said, low on his scale of priorities."
Mr Howard chose to stuff our prisons with ever-expanding numbers, without securing extra funds from the Treasury. The result of this choice was clear from the beginning: the slashing of education programmes and the rise of dangerous over-crowding. Sixty-five per cent of adult male prisoners have a reading age of an eight-year-old or worse. All but 24 of our more than 70,000 prisoners are going to be released one day: when they come out, still barely literate, does Mr Howard think they are more or less likely to reoffend? David Ramsbotham, the former chief inspector of Her Majesty's Prisons, says: "I would like to see every prison judged on the numbers of prisoners who cannot read when they come in and the number who still can't read when they leave." What sane person could disagree? Yet Mr Howard freely admitted to Mr Lewis this was a "low priority" for him.
One reason why Mr Howard's absurd claims have not been challenged is profoundly depressing: Tony Blair and David Blunkett have adopted huge chunks of his philosophy. To damn Mr Howard's record would be to damn their own. As Nick Cohen documents in his book Pretty Straight Guys, Tony Blair's period as shadow Home Secretary played just as significant a role in breaking the liberal(ish) consensus about crime as Mr Howard himself. Mr Blair even tried to outbid his Tory opponent from the right.
Yet now, after more than a decade of Howard-style policies - long enough to gauge the effect - our prisons are failing at a staggering rate. Fifty-eight per cent of all adults and a stunning 88 per cent of offenders aged between 15 and 17 reoffend within two years of their release. Imagine if a majority of NHS operations did not affect the medical condition they were supposed to cure, or if schools left 88 per cent of their kids illiterate.
What we desperately need now is a redefinition of this debate. The choice is not between "tough" and "soft"; it is between effective and useless. "Tough" policies - put them in an empty cell and leave them to rot and rape each other - just don't work. It is not those of us who want rehabilitation who are betraying the mugged grannies and the burgled primary schools - it is the Howards and the Blunketts, who choose facile posturing over policies that actually work. The Prime Minister's instinct on Mr Howard will probably be to hug him close, but he should see this instead as a perfect opportunity to reassess law and order policy over the decade since he last faced the new Tory leader. Ten years of Michael Howard's policies are 10 years too many.