Michael Howard finally answers question that Jeremy Paxman asked him 12 times
‘My recollection is that I didn’t threaten to overrule him.’
Former Conservative party leader Michael Howard has finally answered the question that Jeremy Paxman asked him twelve times during the broadcaster’s most famous grilling.
The classic 1997 encounter on Newsnight featured Paxman interrogating Howard about the controversial dismissal of the head of the prison service, Derek Lewis.
Despite his best efforts, Paxman failed to get a satisfactory answer to the question of whether Howard did or did not "threaten to overrule" Lewis.
But now – 20 years later - Howard has addressed the question.
"The questioning was slightly absurd because what I was not supposed to do was to overrule Derek Lewis and I didn’t overrule Derek Lewis and no one has ever suggested that I did overrule Derek Lewis. So I didn’t break any of the rules or the conventions and there’s no question that I did,” he said on Radio 4’s Reflections With Peter Hennessy.
"My recollection, gone back over things, is that I didn’t threaten to overrule him either.
"But whether I threatened is really a bit beside the point because I didn’t do it."
The former Tory leader, who now sits in the House of Lords, also sought to explain why he had not given Paxman a straight answer at the time.
"Look, I was being asked these questions by Jeremy years after the event," he said.
"This interview took place during the 1997 Conservative Leadership campaign. These events had happened two years earlier. I’d been campaigning all day, I hadn’t remotely been thinking about Derek Lewis or prisons, I’d been thinking about the Tory Leadership…
"This is not an excuse but perhaps an explanation. At the end of the day, long day when you’re tried, you know what these days are like, that – I wasn’t able to go back over the history and so I answered in my own way, as the phrase goes."
Howard has previously described the grilling as “not the most enjoyable experience ever” while political commentators frequently refer back to it.
When Paxman stood down from Newsnight in 2014 the Guardian called the 1997 interview "a masterclass in persistence, even if it merely led to a very uncomfortable stalemate".
Academics have also savoured the encounter, with Dr Alban Webb of the University of Sussex writing: "The refrain of ‘Did you threaten to overrule him’ subsequently came to denote a high watermark in the style of persistent, robust, but cordial interviewing technique pioneered by Robin Day and others 40 year earlier."
More recently, Paxman reinforced his credentials as television’s toughest interrogator by savaging junior Treasury minister Chloe Smith over the 'omnishambles' budget of 2012.