Conservative Diary

« "David Cameron's good fortune was not to have won the election" | Main | Cameron and Harman clash over future (un)employment levels at PMQs »

Ken Clarke's challenge to Michael Howard's legacy

CLARKE-KENNETH Ministers who announce an unpopular measure during a spending squeeze can try to defend it in one of two ways.  The first is to say that it's justified in its own terms.  The second is to say that it's been forced on them by the savings drive.  If they take the first route, they'll be attacked for promoting the wrong policy.  If they take the second, they'll be assailed for promoting the wrong policy just to help out the Chancellor - and told that cuts must be found elsewhere.

Ken Clarke is taking the first route to promote his plan to cut prison numbers.  Later this morning, he'll say in a speech that "just banging up more and more people for longer without actively seeking to change them is what you would expect of Victorian England".  When Home Secretary during the 1990s, he would have thought it "impossible and ridiculous" to have today's prison population of some 80,000.  He was similarly breezy with an indulgent John Humphrys on the Today programme earlier this morning.  The Justice Secretary wants "a rehabilitation revolution", paying private and voluntary groups if they successfully cut re-offending.

ClarkePrisons Early out of the traps to knock Clarke for ushering dangerous criminals on to our streets is Jack Straw.  In a staggering piece of chutzpah (remember Labour's Early Prisoners Release scheme?), Straw's been given the main slot in the Daily Mail to bewail the betrayal of Michael Howard - who starkly declared as Home Secretary that "prison works".  The ex-Labour Home Secretary's game is to embarrass David Cameron by reminding him that, during the election debates, he berated Nick Clegg for wanting to cut prison numbers.  Now those "weak" Liberal Democrats, Straw explains, have got the Tories where they want them.

Clarke pointedly said on Today that during a visit to Leeds prison yesterday he hadn't met any violent offenders on short-term sentences.  Rather, he'd talked with an asylum seeker, a disqualified driver, and a man who'd defaulted on his CSA payments.  The problem with Clarke's argument is that there are circumstances in which such offenders should indeed be behind bars.  And when criminals either receive shorter sentences than they should, or are released from prison too early, or both.

It's clear that Clarke genuinely believes in cutting prison numbers.  This will please the Liberal Democrats, anger the right of his Party, infuriate the Tory press - when did you last see the Mail give a Labour politician its main billing? - and stretch the coalition.  But it's hard to believe that he'd have the political room to do so were it not for the cuts coming to his Department's spending plans.  Such reductions can't be managed painlessly.  But were they being applied more evenly across Departments - without health and development being privileged above others - we might not be facing the prospect of offenders who should be behind bars walking the streets.

Paul Goodman

5.30pm update:

HOWARD-MICHAEL Michael Howard has just spoken to Radio 4's PM programme about the new policy as outlined by his former Cabinet colleague (and university friend), Ken Clarke. Here are the highlights of what he said:

“I’ve read his speech. I’m not convinced by it.”

“I think he’s wrong on one or two of the things he’s said in this speech.

“These judges and magistrates don’t send people to prison without giving the matter a great deal of thought.”

“The prison population has gone up and crime has continued to fall.”

“Short-term offenders are sent to prison because that’s what the judge or magistrate thought was appropriate. This is something that the courts take a great deal of care over.”

Hat tip to James Kirkup for noting the quotes.

Jonathan Isaby


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.