Ducking the question

by Henry on November 6, 2003

Peter Briffa, “leaping to the defence”:http://publicinterest.blogspot.com/2003_11_02_publicinterest_archive.html#106785076132375360 ^1^ of soon-to-be-anointed Tory leader, Michael Howard, offers us a revisionist interpretation of Jeremy Paxman’s infamous “skewering”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/olmedia/video/newsnight/howard.ram of Howard in a television interview. Paxman asked Howard fourteen times whether or not he’d instructed Derek Lewis, the head of the prison service to suspend the governor of Parkhurst prison; Howard refused fourteen times to give a straight answer. For Briffa, this is evidence of Howard’s basic honesty.

bq. for what it’s worth, Howard at least didn’t lie. If it had been Blair, say, or Hattersley, he’d have just denied it and the whole thing would have been forgotten. Howard’s remembered for not dissembling. Not such a terrible thing, really. The Tories are about to choose a teller of uncomfortable truths as their leader.

Briffa seems to have completely forgotten why the sacking was controversial in the first place. Howard had explicitly denied in the House of Commons, in October 1995, that he’d instructed Lewis to suspend the governor. Unfortunately, his denial appears not to have been true, as Lewis and Ann Widdecombe, who was Howard’s junior minister at the time, were later to reveal. It’s worth quoting at length from Widdecombe’s speech to the House of Commons (available in “Hansard”:http://www.publications.parliament.uk/cgi-bin/ukparl_hl?DB=ukparl&STEMMER=en&WORDS=widdecombe+howard+derek+lewis+&COLOUR=Red&STYLE=s&URL=/pa/cm199798/cmhansrd/vo970519/debtext/70519-11.htm#70519-11_spnew4), which scotched Howard’s leadership chances in the last leadership election but one.

bq. I shall now turn to the censure debate in October 1995. My right hon. and learned Friend (i.e. Michael Howard) said “On Tuesday, the Leader of the Opposition made three allegations:”. He went on to list them and said that the first one was “that I personally told Mr. Lewis that the governor of Parkhurst should be suspended immediately;” He listed the other allegations, and said: “Each and every one of the allegations is untrue.”–[Official Report, 19 October 1995; Vol. 264, c. 524.] In other words, he categorically denied in the House that he had personally told Mr. Lewis that the governor of Parkhurst should be suspended immediately.

bq. Some hon. Members may have watched “Newsnight” on Tuesday 13 May, in which my right hon. and learned Friend was far less categoric. He said of Mr. Lewis: “I gave him the benefit of my opinion in strong language.” I can tell the House that the “Newsnight” version is the correct one.

bq. There is ample documentary evidence that my right hon. and learned Friend did indeed personally tell Mr. Lewis that the governor of Parkhurst should be suspended. The atmosphere at that meeting, attested to in the documents, is of fury and confrontation. I was told in a personal note by one of those present: “This was the subject of the worst disagreement. The Home Secretary wanted suspension, Derek Lewis adamantly refused.”

And even more to the point.

bq. In the debate, my right hon. and learned Friend was asked by the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin): “Mr. Lewis says that he was given a deadline by the right hon. and learned Gentleman by which to agree to the removal ofMr. Marriott, after which he would be overruled. Is that true?” My right hon. and learned Friend replied categorically: “There was no question of overruling the director general”.–[Official Report, 19 October 1995; Vol.264, c. 520.]

bq. Oh, yes, there was. As he rather belatedly admitted last week, and as documentary evidence within the Department shows, after Mr. Lewis had been asked to reconsider his decision, my right hon. and learned Friend took advice on whether he could instruct Derek Lewis to suspend Mr. Marriott–this bearing in mind that he had told the House that he had not personally told Mr. Lewis that Marriott should be suspended.

This explains why Howard was at pains to avoid answering Paxman’s question. He’d previously made a statement to the House of Commons which, to put it kindly, was somewhat economical with the truth. He’d then been caught out. But if he acknowledged to Paxman that he had indeed instructed Lewis to suspend the governor of Parkhurst, he would effectively be admitting that he’d previously misled the House of Commons.

Now, Ann Widdecombe has Parliamentary privilege, and I don’t, so I’m going to forebear from commenting directly on Mr. Howard’s past record as a “teller of uncomfortable truths.” But I do invite you to draw your own conclusions, on the basis of the Parliamentary record, and of the “interview”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/olmedia/video/newsnight/howard.ram itself, which I recommend you watch for entertainment value, if nothing else.

^1^ Link bloggered: scroll down

{ 7 comments }

1

Brian Weatherson 11.06.03 at 4:49 am

Now, Ann Widdecombe has Parliamentary privilege, and I don’t, so I’m going to forebear from commenting directly on Mr. Howard’s past record as a “teller of uncomfortable truths.”

You mean you’re worried about a known liar suing you for calling him a liar? I know the defamation laws in England are completely insane, but this is a bit over the top isn’t it?

2

Henry 11.06.03 at 5:08 am

A little cautious, I admit, but litigiousness does seem to be on the rise in the blogosphere. And Tory politicians are notoriously prone to legal action …

3

Brian Weatherson 11.06.03 at 6:34 am

Fair enough. Until about 10 years ago it was common practice in Australia for politicians shortly before or after retiring to supplement their income with defamation suits. The High Court eventually stopped it by deciding the clauses in the constitution saying there had to be elections implied a right to relatively free speech about the people standing in those elections. That’s probably lousy jurisprudence, but it was good public policy and it seems to have stopped many of these suits, and meant we can feel a little freer spouting off about them.

On the other hand we haven’t yet figured out how to make Australian decisions binding on English courts, and Michael Howard is approaching retirement, so caution is perhaps advisable.

4

James R MacLean 11.06.03 at 7:13 am

Henry,
Thanks so much for this essay. I’d been out of touch on UK politics since…uhm, I don’t care to say how long I’ve been out of touch but I was pretty certain there was no way in hell IDS was going to be PM. Do you really think Howard’s got a chance?

5

James R MacLean 11.06.03 at 7:13 am

Henry,
Thanks so much for this essay. I’d been out of touch on UK politics since…uhm, I don’t care to say how long I’ve been out of touch but I was pretty certain there was no way in hell IDS was going to be PM. Do you really think Howard’s got a chance?

6

Jeremy Osner` 11.06.03 at 1:34 pm

Even if he had not previously lied about his actions… how does circumlocution in the service of avoiding a question amount to “telling uncomfortable truth”?

And Henry, in the US “on the up-and-up” is idiom for “honest” — does it mean “on the rise” in Britain?

7

Henry Farrell 11.06.03 at 4:41 pm

Jeremy – probably means the same thing everywhere – I was posting at 1.30am – have changed the wording. Thanks.

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