By Paul Goodman
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Let me start with a declaration of interest. Chris Grayling is an former Parliamentary colleague, a fellow member of the 2001 Commons intake and, I like to think, a friend. So there are my cards on the table. I used to watch him soon after we were first elected, seeking to get called to speak each afternoon in the Commons, trying to get in on almost every question. I wondered if he would burn himself out. He didn't, rising rapidly through the front bench ranks until he was made Shadow Home Secretary. For reasons that remain mysterious - at least to me - it didn't work out. I wondered if the demoted Grayling would ever make the Cabinet. He did, being appointed Justice Secretary at the last reshuffle. How is he doing now?
We meet in his Commons Office, set in one of the Ministerial corridors from which Conservatives were exiled for 13 years. Grayling looks reassuringly unexhausted and unchanged: rangy, wary, soft-spoken, occasionally searching for a word but never lacking a certain sense of purpose. Is it true that Theresa May, his working partner at the Home Office, said: "I lock them up, and Ken Clarke let them out. I lock them up, and Chris throws away the key"? "That was Damian Green," says Grayling, correcting me. "I think he was getting at the fact that I have arrived at the Justice Ministry with the intention of being a tough Justice Secretary, but I want to counter-balance that with a much smarter approach to rehabilitation."
I point out that the Coalition Agreement commits the Liberal Democrats to abstention - so any such tax cut should pass the Commons. Grayling looks slightly suprised and rather pleased: "we ought to do it at the earliest possible opportunity". Back to prisons: he says it is "not his intention" to reduce the number of prison places, but is that a guarantee? The Justice Secretary is cautious, as well he might be given the squeeze on his Department's budget. "My goal to keep the number of prison places at least above the level we inherited". He needs to bring down costs and wants the service to do more for less: over the next 10 or 20 years, we need a continual programme of refreshing and renewing the prison estate."
Talking of prisoners, what about votes for them? Has the Government ruled out introducing a bill to that effect - to show the European Court again that the proposal simply isn't acceptable to MPs? Grayling says that "I have a duty as Lord Chancellor to uphold the law, and I take that responsibility very seriously". In other words, he isn't just going to tell the court to get stuffed. None the less, he makes two points. First, that "the Prime Minister has expressed a pretty clear view on this issue and, second, that I'm on the record as being supportive of his past comments". He then quotes Lord Hoffman - who has said that Parliament is sovereign, but that if it takes a different view from the court "there is a political price to pay".
"We will soon be at the point where will have to decide what our plans are, and I'm afraid you'll have to wait and see." In other words, the Justice Secretary won't be drawn. But he has been thinking aloud about Britain's future relationship with the ECHR, so there's no reason for him not to be drawn a bit on that. The current situation, he says, is "unacceptable". The world has changed since the convention has drawn up, people "who have an avowed intent to try to do damage to our society" are trying to use the court to stop deportation, and the court and its jurisprudence "have moved far, far away from the original intention of the authors of the convention." He wants the party "to go into the next election with very clear plan to address than issue", just as it went into the last one with the British Bill of Rights plan.
Might the party try it again? "It's certainly an option now, but in this case i'm not ruling anything in or ruling anything out." Is there a problem with it, in retrospect? "The honest truth is that I haven't started doing the detailed work yet, though what I'm absolutely certain of though is that the status quo is not an option." It's evident that Grayling has a plan. First, to get his rehabilitation plans in place - drawing on his experience of similar schemes in his previous work as Employment Minister - then to deal with votes for prisoners and then, after the cross-party commission on a British Bill of Rights has reported, to deal with the ECHR. But if nothing is ruled in or out, might a future Conservative Government quit the ECHR altogether? If it did, would Britain be "a pariah state" comparable to Belarus, to quote Dominic Grieve, the Attorney-General?
"I'm not sure its necessarily necessary - and this is why I say that we shouldn't hold one view or another at this stage - to walk away from the convention. It may be that we have to address the issue of the way we interact in relation to the court: again, I'm not ruling it in or ruling it out at this stage." I am surprised. The Justice Secretary seems to be suggesting that a future Tory Government could might quit the ECHR altogether. What would the Attorney say? So I try Grayling again. He's "not sure" that Britain should walk away from the Convention? "Well, again I'm not ruling it in and not ruling it out. I think it would be irresponsible at the start of a process. We've got to go through a process. We've got to deal with this issue, because people feel very strongly about it. I don't want to start with a conclusion."
This is the key to Grayling. He is a bright, cautious, very hard-working, immensely focused and highly disciplined politician who, in his own words, "is positioned as a right-wing member of the cabinet, and I am a right-wing member of the Cabinet". The latter part of the sentence is important - though I have never thought of the Justice Secretary as a member of the hard right - but so is the former part. Grayling is an ex-editor with a good ear for what makes solid copy ("Tough Justice Secretary"...'I want to see more of the right people go to prison and fewer of them come back") and a politician with sharp elbows with which to clear political space. Note how he has made opportunities over the past year to argue that David Cameron needs more "EU veto moments" - strengthening his support on his right while putting his own view.
What might those moments be? He believes that the Prime Minister should be "given leeway" over the EU by Tory MPs, given the Eurozone crisis, and though he wants to see more powers repatriated won't be drawn on a referendum. Pressed for an exampe of issues that matter to Conservative core voters - "we need to reassure those voters that there is a strong Conservative Party that is determined to win the next election and will do things in government that we can't do at the moment" - he immediately comes back with: "talk to most of them, and they say the cost of living'. This strikes me as a typically grounded no-nonsense view - right out of the Blue Collar Conservatism playbook: "there's quite a lot of common ground between the people we need to win and the people whose support we have."
I ask the Justice Secretay if he opposed going into coaliton. "Yes, I don't think there's any secret about that. I argued against the deal when it was done, but equally I would now be the biggest advocate for the Coalition to continue." So when did he change his mind? I get a characteristic Grayling answer, rooted not in abstractions but in his own experience. "When I look back at the job I"ve been doing for the past two and a half years, at no point have I felt that the Coalition has prevented me from delivering the change I want to deliver. What about the Premiership? "We're top of the table," this Manchester United supporter smiles back - before saying that he's only just arrived in Cabinet and "hasn't given it the slightest thought". But I can't help noticing that, as he might put it, he is ruling nothing in and ruling nothing out.