The Sketch: After the fireworks, who will end up on Michael's bonfire?

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The Independent Online

Michael Howard came to the House yesterday with more explosive material than anyone since Guy Fawkes. You would have enjoyed the show. There were certainly fireworks. We'll have to see who gets to sit on top of the bonfire.

The government backbench swung between guilty silence and guilty roaring. "It does no good to shout down anyone in this House," the Speaker said. No one understood what that meant, so he was ignored.

"In the last month," Mr Howard began, as the guilty silence deepened, "there has been an emergency halt called to immigration from Bulgaria and Romania. An in-house investigation has been extended twice. Two whistleblowers have been suspended and a hotline set up for any other information."

The Prime Minister sat there absorbing himself in his folder, refusing to look at his questioner, and working up an expression of contempt laced with fear (he always does this when he's cornered).

Sixteen months ago, Mr Howard went on, a senior Foreign Office officer in eastern Europe wrote to the deputy head of the immigration service informing him of a "an organised scam" operating in his region. Untold numbers of applications had been waived through without any checks. Why was no action taken? Mr Blair roused himself and offered to "set this in context". Yes, let's look at it in the totality. Somehow when we see things in totality we invariably find the Government is blameless.

Mr Howard cranked up the pitch and volume and stood there scolding the Prime Minister with another leaked letter from another of our officials. We learnt about the business plans of business migrants. They could rarely speak English, but even in their native tongue they were entirely unfamiliar with the businesses they proposed starting. Pseudo electricians, one-legged roofers, bricklayers unable to recognise a brick. I think they came round to quote on my house recently.

Mr Blair said that two things were important: (1) things should be set in context, and (2) we should always talk with great care about these matters. The first point didn't mean anything at all.

The second, I think, was trying to suggest Mr Howard was making a racist, or xenophobic, point. When he finished his vacant remarks by repeating the point he got a long, loud, roaring cheer from his supporters as they tried to disperse their shame and embarrassment through noise.

In the House, this isn't a question of immigration but of integrity. Have ministers misled the House? And how will we find the truth?

Extracting the facts from the Home Office requires difficult, almost experimental surgery. It would be easier to extract one of David Blunkett's kidneys, and probably as messy.

But if these official warnings were seen by ministers (and Beverley Hughes admitted to David Cameron yesterday that ministers had indeed seen something of them) then surely the Prime Minister will have to look at the problem in a much greater totality than he has so far. That is, if he wants to exonerate his government from charges of incompetence, deceit, malevolent delay, lying by omission, falsification of the record and the widespread deception of the electorate.