Michael Howard is deeply upset by the removal in the recent Cabinet reshuffle of Michael Gove from the Department of Education. In an interview yesterday afternoon with ConservativeHome, Lord Howard said: “I do think it’s a great pity that Michael Gove was moved.”

The criticism is all the more striking because of the loyalty which Lord Howard almost invariably shows towards David Cameron, who in 2005 succeeded him as Conservative Party leader. In this interview, he declines the opportunity to challenge the Prime Minister’s line on grammar schools, and even expresses the belief that Boris Johnson has become “more disciplined”.

But Lord Howard three times laments Mr Gove’s departure, and compares the opposition provoked in the last four years by the Education Secretary’s reforms to the hostility which he himself encountered as Home Secretary in 1993-97, while driving through tougher crime policies.

After the interview had been published, Lord Howard rang with an additional observation, on a subject we had omitted to discuss. He pointed out that Britain can impose tough sanctions on Russia, even if the EU fails to do so: “The downing of the aeroplane in Ukraine is a complete atrocity and Putin has to be made to understand this. The European Union does not have exclusive competence in relation to sanctions. There is nothing to stop us imposing tough sanctions even if these are not adopted by the EU.”

ConHome: “There was a more than usually vehement piece in Saturday’s Telegraph by Charles Moore. He said: ‘This week, Mr Cameron identified the two departmental ministers who had been most actively pursuing the important things, and then sacked one and demoted the other.’ Now you as a departmental minister were not afraid of annoying vested interests and doing things which you regarded as extremely important. The admirers of Michael Gove and Owen Paterson would say they displayed a similar tenacity and a similar willingness to upset the ghastly received wisdom in their fields. So do you think it’s a pity they’ve been moved?”

Howard: “Well I think if I’m going to criticise the reshuffle, which I think on the whole is good in many respects, I have to be fairly limited in my criticism. So I will content myself with saying that I do think it’s a great pity that Michael Gove was moved. I do think that if you are to introduce radical change and drive radical change it is inevitable that you will be involved in controversy and it is inevitable that you will be unpopular, and I can speak from experience in that respect, on the basis of my time at the Home Office. So I do think it’s a pity that Michael Gove was moved.”

ConHome: “Do you want to comment on Owen Paterson?”

Howard: “Well as I say, if I’m going to criticise the reshuffle I think I should be limited. So I will impose a self-denying ordinance. I don’t want to go through every minister who was moved, do you think he was a mistake. So I will content myself with what I’ve said. I think I should add that I have high regard for Nicky Morgan, and I’m sure she’ll do a good job. But nevertheless I think it’s a pity that Michael Gove was moved.”

ConHome: “When you took on Tony Blair at Prime Minister’s Questions you used the great line, ‘This grammar school boy will take no lessons from that public school boy’. Damian Green has just said he’s going to be making the case for grammar schools. Will you be joining him?”

Howard: “I’ll wait to see what he said. I didn’t know he’d said that. I’m certainly in favour of keeping the grammar schools we have, and of allowing them to expand, which I think is the policy of the present government. I’d like to see the way in which Damian Green puts it, because you have to face the fact that in 18 long years of Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher, grammar schools were not restored or reintroduced. So I think there’d be some practical difficulties, but I have always supported grammar schools.”

ConHome: “You’re rather suggesting it’s politically impossible to advocate the founding of new grammar schools.”

Howard: “I’m not sure it’s politically impossible. It may be practically very difficult.”

ConHome: “When you became Tory leader in 2003 did you think you had a good chance of winning, or did you think it was your duty to do it even though your chances were not very good?”

Howard: “I certainly thought it was my duty to do it, and I thought we had a chance of winning. Politics is a very unpredictable business.”

ConHome: “What sort of chance? A sporting chance?”

Howard: “A chance.” Lord Howard gave a smile of playful intransigence. He knows exactly how far he is prepared on any given subject to go.

ConHome: “How did David Cameron first impress you as a possible future…”

Howard: “I first met him I think when he was one of the people who used to brief me when I appeared on programmes like Question Time and Any Questions.”

ConHome: “So he came along from the Research Department.”

Howard: “He came along from the Research Department and I was always very impressed with him, and then after the reshuffle [in 1993] which took Ken Clarke to the Treasury and me to the Home Office, Ken phoned me I think the day after the reshuffle and said ‘There’s this chap here who’s been Norman Lamont’s special adviser, I’m bringing my own special adviser, do you know anyone who might take him?’ And I said, ‘I’ll take him like a shot.’”

ConHome: “George Osborne is quite a bit younger, but when did he come to your notice?”

Howard: “Well I knew George a bit because he worked for William Hague. For two years I was shadow Foreign Secretary when William was leader.”

ConHome: “And how did he strike you?”

Howard: “Obviously he was highly intelligent. And then they both used to brief me, together with Boris when he turned up, before Prime Minister’s Questions. And Boris always added greatly to the gaiety of nations, but he wasn’t always there.”

ConHome: “Did he sometimes provide useable material, Boris?”

Howard: “Oh definitely, yes, yes, absolutely, I have a high regard for Boris, especially when he was there.”

ConHome: “What’s his future?”

Howard: “Well I hope his future will be in the House of Commons, doing a big job.”

ConHome: “And do you think he would be capable in someone else’s government of having a major role in the team without actually being the top dog?”

Howard: “Well I think that’s a big question. I think the answer is ‘Yes’. But only time will tell.”

ConHome: “But you used to think the answer was ‘No”.”

Howard: “No. No, no, no.”

ConHome: “But you got rather fed up with him at the time of the Liverpool thing in 2004. I don’t want to rake up old, unhappy, far-off things.”

Howard: “I didn’t get fed up with him in general. On the specific issue, he did something which I didn’t agree with, disapproved of.”

ConHome: “Do you think he’s nowadays a more disciplined figure?”

Howard: “I think he definitely is more disciplined now. But what he has yet to do is to demonstrate that he is capable of doing one of the big jobs in government, which I think is different from being Mayor of London. I think the probability is that he is capable. I think everybody assumes he’s going to come back at the next election, but I’m not in a position to know or to judge.”

ConHome: “Attacking Neil Kinnock in 1992 was rather successful, but a lot of people thought too much of the Tory campaign in 2010 was devoted to attacking Gordon Brown. It will obviously be very tempting in 2015 to point out the many grievous weaknesses of Ed Miliband. My own view, which may well be wrong, is that that would be a mistake. Many people are going to vote Labour despite having a low opinion of the Labour leader, and for Tories to say this leader is useless somehow doesn’t change their mind. But do you have a view about to what extent the Tories should go for Miliband and to what extent they should ignore Miliband and say ‘If we get given a mandate, we are going to do the following good things in the next five years’?”

Howard: “Well I certainly think the Conservative Party will tell people what it’s going to do over the next five years. But I do also think one of the biggest issues in the general election campaign is going to be the choice between David Cameron and Ed Miliband as Prime Minister. After all that’s what general elections are about. And the gap in public confidence between the two of them is a very important advantage for the Conservative Party. Now how you go about making sure that that gap and the shortcomings of Mr Miliband are in people’s minds when they go to the polling station is a matter I’m content to leave to the Tory Party’s strategists. But I think the difference between the two in public perception is one of the biggest advantages the Conservative Party has going into the next election, and one of the most important issues.”

ConHome: “Since you were Home Secretary in the mid-1990s, the prison population has roughly doubled.”

Howard: “And crime has continued to fall.”

ConHome: “Do you think the prison population is going to go on increasing?”

Howard: “I don’t know, because people are sent to prison as a result of decisions made by judges, who are punishing them for crimes they’ve committed. Now I am a supporter of the Government’s rehabilitation revolution, and I hope that will succeed, and if it succeeds you might get fewer people committing crimes and fewer people going to prison. But that there is a direct correlation between the likelihood of someone being sent to prison and the likelihood of someone committing a crime is something I’ve never doubted. And so you have to make it clear that those professional persistent criminals, a relatively small number of whom commit a disproportionately large number of crimes, are going to be sent to prison if they continue to commit their crimes, and I think that was one of the elements that led to the downturn in crime while I was Home Secretary, and since the changes that I put in place have survived everything that’s happened since, I think my reforms have stood the test of time and have had some impact on what’s happened to crime.”