LABOUR 'DIRTY TRICKS' EXPOSED; Secret Bid to Slur Michael Howard over His 'Drug Dealer Relative' And'passport Favour for Petronella'

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Byline: JASON BEATTIE

LABOUR is using the new Freedom of Information Act to mount a pre-election campaign against Michael Howard.

An internal party document shows Labour is trawling Whitehall records to try to discredit the Tory leader.

The "dirt digging" operation is attempting to revive old claims that the Opposition leader, when he was Home Secretary, might have helped a relative who was a drug dealer.

The confidential document shows Labour is organising a campaign in which gay activists, MPs and the antigun lobby are mobilised to request private papers relating to Mr Howard's time in government.

The disclosure comes amid a row over the impending release of Whitehall papers about the Black Wednesday sterling crash in 1992.

Claims by Labour that John Major, then the prime minister, is trying to stop their release were denounced as a "smear".

The Labour document reveals: . Gay activists are being prepared to demand the release of letters and papers written by Mr Howard about Section 28, which banned "promoting homosexuality" in schools. The Labour document asks: "Do you think we should tee up colleagues in the gay lobby groups to get publicity for these?"

. Former Labour minister Peter Kilfoyle is being asked to demand the release of files about a relative of Mr Howard who was accused of drug offences.

. Questions have been submitted on whether Mr Howard abused his position to fast-track a replacement passport for journalist Petronella Wyatt, an allegation repeatedly denied by him.

. Labour is trying to resurrect the row surrounding Mr Howard's sacking of former prisons chief Derek Lewis. This was the subject of a Newsnight interview in 1997 when Mr Howard was asked 14 times if he had threatened to overrule Mr Lewis.

The internal Labour party document, headed "FoI questions, Michael Howard" will reignite the

row over Labour's targeting of Mr Howard. A Tory source said: "It is obvious Labour is launching a very spiteful smear campaign. Tony Blair has gone back to his old ways of spin and personal abuse.

"Instead of focusing on issues that really matter he appears determined to fight this election with dirty tricks."

Earlier this week Alan Milburn, the party's election coordinator, was forced to withdraw two internet posters depicting the Tory leader following claims of anti-Semitism.

Despite the embarrassment, Labour strategists have decided to step up the attacks.

The internal briefing note, drawn up by officials in the Labour election campaign team, lists questions to be submitted under the Act and the thinking behind them.

One section reads: "Did ministers proceed with the poll tax despite evidence that it would hit the poorest hardest?"

It then suggests a possible request as: "Please release all assessments or projections on the economic impact of the community charge on lowerincome groups and pensioners made between 1983 and 1990."

Another part of the document suggests getting " Scottish comrades" to request information on the poll tax and the handgun ban.

It suggests a possible request as: "Please release all records concerning the then local governmentminister Michael Howard and the decision to implement the community charge in Scotland before the rest of the UK."

A Labour source said: "These are not the only questions we will be asking about Michael Howard. His record as a minister of a government which gave us the poll tax and 15 per cent interest rates is going to be absolutely central to Labour's campaign. …