LEADING ARTICLE: A shameful lack of honour

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Events over the past few days have provided powerful evidence that Michael Howard has indeed intervened regularly in the running of the prison service. Derek Lewis, during more than three years as Director- General of the Prison Service, was clearly fed up with such interference. That much is apparent from the writ against Mr Howard, which he issued yesterday. Mr Lewis portrays the Home Secretary breathing down his neck every day, obstructing staff appointments, interfering in industrial disputes with the prison officers' association, even pressurising him to suspend John Marriott, the former Governor of Parkhurst prison after three dangerous "lifers" escaped.

Mr Lewis is not the first person to think that he could do a better job if only a superior would cease pestering. His protestations are also self- serving. (Like Mr Howard, he tends to blame everyone but himself). And he may not be wholly reliable on the particulars. After all, he seems to have changed his story. In January, Mr Lewis told a Commons committee of MPs that Mr Howard had not intervened in the operational matters that led to Mr Marriott's removal.

Nevertheless, Mr Lewis's general case that his old boss is a busybody looks compelling. And who could blame Mr Howard for being so obsessive? He is the Home Secretary. We would be worried if he did not take a conscientious interest in those behind bars.

In normal circumstances, we would not expect Mr Howard to resign for being too involved in the running of Britain's prisons. Nor would we expect him to step down over the Parkhurst jail-break or the other high-profile escapes under his watch. They were serious: Sir John Learmont's report on Monday described a prison system with security flaws that require urgent action, but it did not demand Mr Howard's head.

No Home Secretary in living memory has resigned over a jail-break or prison disturbance. The public expects the incumbent not to fall on his sword but to own up to the problems, find the solutions and provide reassurances that they have been implemented. Mr Howard's predecessor did not stand down after the Strangeways riot in 1990. James Prior stayed on as Northern Ireland Secretary after the 1983 mass break-out of the Maze by IRA prisoners.

The problem with Mr Howard is that he has so redefined his job that he is not like any other Home Secretary. He has presided over a supposed change in the administration of prisons, namely that operational control is devolved to the Prison Service from the Home Office, which is meant to retain responsibility solely for policy-making.

This attempted division makes some sense in theory but, practically speaking, it hasn't happened. Mr Howard cannot resist interfering.

This is a small misdemeanour, however, beside the fact that Mr Howard has used this mythical division of roles as a cover for absolving himself of responsibility for the problems identified in the Learmont report. If he had said he was sorry, he would have been forgiven for what went wrong at Parkhurst. By washing his hands of sin while condemning others, he has merely provoked fresh anger. By telling MPs that he has not been involved in operational decisions, he now stands accused of the ultimate parliamentary crime: misleading the House of Commons over his actions.

The Parkhurst escape threatened Michael Howard's reputation for ministerial competence, but should not in itself have ended his political career. It is the Home Secretary's cowardly, dishonourable and dissembling response to that escape that may now prove fatal.