This was an evening for the great and good to say farewell to the great and good Judge Tumim, after his eight years as inspector of prisons came to an abrupt and untimely end when the Home Secretary chose not to renew his contract. The audience was packed with the tattered remnants of what was once called the liberal establishment - distinguished judges and lawyers, Lord Longford, Prunella Scales, the former director of prisons and recent liberal convert Derek Lewis (another Howard victim), and many more, garbed in bow ties in homage to Tumim's own. It was a cabal of appreciation, an act almost of insurrection.
Coded and not so coded words were spoken at the end of the show. And Judge Tumim warned that the 50 per cent cut being made in education inside prisons would virtually bring to an end performances such as these.
When it was strongly rumoured that there will be no knighthood in the New Year Honours list for the fearless and tireless judge, a murmur of anger coursed through the guests. Black-balled, there will be no seat on useful committees, no further service required, despite his hard-earned expertise. His honest and acerbic turn of phrase is not in demand.
He departed with a resounding speech on the redemptive power of art for prisoners, especially drama. A couple of prisoners in the cast spoke, too, effusive in praise for the judge, extolling with a few wry jokes all he has done for the prison service, the dignity of prisoners, for their rehabilitation and education. "Thank you for trying," one said. Lumps in throats all round. How sickened Michael Howard would have been by all this soft stuff.
The prisons are now fuller than they have ever been, as a deliberate result of the Home Secretary's belief that "prison works". On 1 December, when the new inspector of prisons took over, the prison population stood at 52,731 - 9,000 more than when Michael Howard became Home Secretary in 1993. But a confidential Home Office document warns that there is much worse still to come.
In his party conference speech, Howard announced new measures designed to send yet more people to prison for longer. Three-strikes-and-you're- out for burglary, life for second-time violent and sex offenders and making prisoners serve their full sentences will multiply the prison population.
A secret internal Home Office memorandum makes an alarming prediction on the probable effect of just the last of these: making prisoners serve their full sentences. It expects the prison population to rise by 10,000 in the first year and another 10,000 in the second year; the total increase by year 10 being 29,000. This estimate is based on the assumption that judges would hand out exactly the same sentences as at present, which they probably wouldn't. But the same document says that judges would have to reduce their sentences to less than 60 per cent of present terms if a large increase in prison population is to be avoided. Very few people imagine that judges will do that, either.
At what point will the overcrowding become so explosive that riots will break out again? Will Michael Howard still be there to reap the whirlwind of this policy? The new drastic cuts in education, with staff directed to more security duties instead of escorting prisoners from cells to classrooms, will add to the pressure.
So far no one has applied for the job of director of prisons, following the sacking of Derek Lewis in October. The Home Office press office retorts that it hasn't been advertised yet - but it is widely regarded as the job from hell, a poisonous bowl of porridge. There is a deep, despairing anger among many in the prison service and it echoes in the whisperings down Home Office corridors. "No Home Secretary in living memory has ever been so hated," says one insider. "He puts political advantage ahead of everything else."
"Everyone's just holding their breath and trying to bear it until he goes," says another. I have never heard civil servants speak like this.
It was with an unguarded whoop of joy that one prison service insider greeted this week's comments by Tumim's successor. The fear was that Howard's appointee as inspector of prisons, General Sir David Ramsbotham, would be a know-nothing puppet, used to obeying orders. After all, Peter Lilley recently brought in a safe army man to head the tricky Social Services Advisory Committee. (A third ex-forces recruit, however, the Prisons Ombudsman, Sir Peter Woodhead, has turned out a disappointment to Howard, protesting vigorously that complaints which he upholds have been regularly rejected by the prison service.)
Now it appears that the new inspector of prisons may be cut from the Tumim cloth. In his first interview this week he savaged the idea of boot camps for the young. He does not think offenders should face tougher regimes in prison, wants them to have more incentives and he expresses deep anxiety at the growing overcrowding. "I am not going to respond to party political pressure," he said. "I shall be very critical, but I hope constructive."
Judge Tumim chuckled with glee on reading this: "I never criticised political policy like that!" he said.
In writing his epitaph, it would be quite wrong to label Tumim as a straightforward liberal, for many penal reformers disagree strongly with his views. They believe custody should only be for the dangerous, and that prison is bad for people, hardening their criminality, with no proven good effect on reoffending rates. Tumim thinks well-run prisons could, and should, transform people. "The figures mean nothing, as it has never been tried."
As he settles down to write his book on prisons, he advocates intensive education, training, moral and psychological counselling, proper work paid at proper rates, and arts to lift their horizons. Although he thinks too many people are sent to prison, he dismisses the liberal counsel of despair, along with the right's bleat that it wouldn't be fair to give offenders advantages not shared by the honest unemployed outside the walls.
He has a Victorian faith in the power to redeem people, a faith all too unfashionable in so much social policy at the moment.
If they can't find anyone else, why not appoint him as director of prisons?