This man is one of Britain's most dangerous drug lords. Why did Michael Howard let him out of jail after ten months?

Labour is accused of "digging dirt" on the Tory leader. But, argues Nick Cohen, the case of John Haa

The Radio 4 Today programme of 7 February ran with what had been the lead political story in the Mail stable for days. Alastair Campbell was back and up to his old tricks. He was trying to smear a Tory statesman. He was ordering new Labour MPs to use the Freedom of Information Act to dig out embarrassing information about Michael Howard.

Peter Mandelson and the Labour MP Fraser Kemp were interrogated, but at no point did listeners learn exactly what the fuss was about. Labour was throwing dirt at the Tories, they were told. But what exactly was this dirt?

Perhaps Today's editors thought it would be tasteless - anti-Semitic, even - to mention John Haase, Simon Bakerman and the London Metropolitan Police inquiry into a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. They weren't alone. You could twiddle the dial for the rest of the day without finding a news broadcast that discussed Haase and Bakerman. Instead, you would have heard Howard's announcement that a Conservative government would scrap the early release of prisoners. "Nothing," he declared, "does more to undermine confidence in our criminal justice system than victims seeing offenders walk free from prison having served as little as half their sentence."

You could have switched off the radio and turned to that morning's Mail and found it in a state of slobbering apoplexy. Tony Blair was responsible for "lies, spin and ruthless chicanery", it cried. But again, beyond a clunking reference by the columnist Melanie Phillips to dredging up "ancient information to discredit Michael Howard relating to family matters", there was no clue to what the fuss was about.

If Britain were half as Americanised as people claim, Haase and Bakerman would be household names. Their faces would stare from Labour Party posters. Journalists would shout questions about them at Howard every time he claimed to be tough on crime. But this is a polite country and there is a near-total silence.

Let's break the silence. Bakerman is Michael Howard's cousin. He is a small-time crook who went to prison for running an amphetamine factory in Liverpool. He told journalists in 1997 that "I see Michael's mother all the time. I last saw Michael when he came to my mum and dad's house for tea after Chelsea played Liverpool last season." Freda Bakerman, his mother, said that she phoned Howard's mother three or four times a week. "We're a very close family," she said. Bakerman used to carry a photograph of Howard in his wallet.

Bakerman hung around John Haase's gang, and Haase was in a much bigger league. He was certainly the most dangerous gangster in Liverpool and possibly the most dangerous in Britain. Graham Johnson of the Sunday Mirror - who, along with the Observer's Martin Bright, has refused to let this subject drop - has a book out about him called Powder Wars. It is a portrait of a true sadist for whom inflicting pain on those who crossed him was not only business, but a personal pleasure.

If serious crime in Liverpool is now out of control, it is Haase's fault. He made guns commonplace on the streets. His criminal career began with armed robberies in the 1970s. He moved on when he realised there was much more money to be made in heroin. He took control of the British end of the southern route for heroin smugglers, which runs from Afghanistan to Britain via Turkey and the Balkans. Customs officers put Haase's gang under surveillance and stared in amazement as bundles of cash the size of bricks were handed over in Liverpool pubs.

Every year, it becomes harder to convict the big fish. The disastrous prohibition of drugs gives gangsters more and more money to bribe witnesses or hire goons to intimidate them. Detectives need to get lucky, and in 1993 Customs hit the jackpot. Officers arrested Haase after seizing heroin with a street value of £18m in the bedroom of a safe house just round the corner from the constituency office of Peter Kilfoyle, Labour MP for Liverpool Walton. Like everyone else who wanted to clean up the city, Kilfoyle was delighted, as was Customs. When Haase and seven associates were jailed for a total of 110 years, a Customs spokesman said the convictions were a "turning point in the fight against the big players". He expected Haase to be inside for 18 years.

Michael Howard let him out after ten months.

Why did the hard man of the Tory party grant a rare royal pardon? He explained that investigators had told the trial judge that Haase had turned informer. The judge had recommended that Howard, as home secretary, should release him. Howard said: "I can neither reveal, nor overstate the risks which would flow from revealing, any of the details which confidentially had been placed before him [the judge] by the prosecuting authorities, save to say that the information had proved to offer quite enormous and unique assistance to the law-enforcement agencies."

It all sounded very secret and very important. Yet the truth was that, from the home secretary downwards, the criminal justice system had fallen for the simplest of cons. Real informers change their names and go into hiding. Haase swaggered around Liverpool as if he owned the place - and it seemed to many that he did.

The "enormous and unique assistance" he gave was about the location of stashes of guns and drugs. Strangely, however, they were always found in abandoned cars without a driver in sight and in derelict houses where no one had lived for years. As Kilfoyle told the Commons, the Haase gang planted the drugs and guns, and Haase then told officers where to find them.

Not one suspect was arrested. In response to a parliamentary question from Kilfoyle in May 2001, the Treasury minister Dawn Primarolo said that neither Haase nor his associate Paul Bennett, whom Howard also gave a "Get Out of Jail Free" card, had given evidence in any Customs and Excise prosecutions. Haase was "unique" in one respect only: he was the first supergrass never to put a criminal behind bars.

Howard hates being asked about Haase. On the rare occasions he has answered questions, he has said he was dutifully following the judge's recommendation. But politicians are meant to be able to use their judgement. That a judge or civil servant advises them to do something is not a reason for them to do it. They need to think for themselves and exercise caution, particularly when there is a family connection, however slight.

If you doubt me, ask yourself what the media would do to a Labour home secretary who made such a monumental mistake. He would be finished, and rightly so, because in an age when the differences between the parties are so tiny, all the public can judge a politician by is his or her character and judgement.

Melanie Phillips argues that the Haase story is "ancient". Not so. After eight years of having his questions fobbed off, Kilfoyle is finally getting somewhere. He took the case to the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, who contacted the Merseyside Police. They agreed that Kilfoyle had enough evidence for it to merit an inquiry into whether there was a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. An assistant commissioner from the Met was put in charge, and began work at the end of January. This is live news.

The Mail is a Tory paper and it is silly to imagine it wanting to do anything apart from protect the leader of the Tory party. What is laughable is that other journalists should fail to notice that the Conservatives are worried, and argue that it is disreputable to try to get to the bottom of a scandal. The implication of much of the coverage is that MPs who ask hard questions about why murderous gangsters were freed to terrorise their constituents are a part of some Machiavellian Blairite plot. Yet from his beer belly to his Scouse accent, Kilfoyle is almost a caricature of an old Labour MP. He resigned from Blair's government because he could not stand the new Labour crowd, and if there was any man in Britain angrier about the Iraq war I didn't meet him.

And what is Kilfoyle's supposedly heinous crime? He has tried to make use of the Freedom of Information Act, which journalists campaigned to put on the statute book precisely so that the public could find out what was done in their name. To date, it hasn't been much help. Merseyside Police says the information Kilfoyle wants on Haase is classified, while the Home Office and Customs are stalling and have not given him one piece of paper. Does this sound like the wheels of a dirty-tricks campaign whirring with sinister efficiency?

If I were Alastair Campbell, running Labour's campaign, I'd use shock tactics. I'd make the first party political broadcast that people wanted to watch. It would tell the story of a gangster through the gangster's battered victims. It would interview Customs officers and have them explain how difficult it was to get him in prison, and then show how easy he found it to swindle his way out.

But I'm not Campbell. He is a gentler man, more in touch with his feminine side. His sweet nature is a pity, because there is a crying need for a bit of alpha male aggression to blow this story open.

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