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Clarke's Sun interview may disguise his plans. But Duncan Smith's welfare proposals are in deadly earnest.

by Paul Goodman

DUNCAN SMITH 2 This morning's media tells a tale of two Cabinet Ministers (as it happens, the two who went head-to-head for the Party leadership the best part of ten years ago): how they differ, what they believe, and how this Government's working out.   The Daily Mail and the Sun have a story about the winner of that contest, Iain Duncan Smith.  The Work and Pensions Secretary wants to "make work pay" - see here and here.  The Sun also has an interview with the loser, Ken Clarke, who promises to "make all lags do jobs in jail".  At first glance, all's simple: two senior Ministers brief the press about their plans - what could be more simple?  But careful examination suggests that matters aren't quite so straightforward.

The welfare stories seem to come straight from the Department of Work and Pensions.  They refer directly to the Secretary of State, cite the Centre for Social Justice, and quote much the same figures.  Furthermore, they raise a familiar bugbear of Duncan Smith's: welfare claimants won't work if it makes them worse off.  And in doing so, they say that government has to spend to save.  "While measures will save the Treasury money in the medium term," the Mail reports, "the proposals will require initial investment - pitching the Work and Pensions Department into a funding battle with the Chancellor".

It's therefore hard to believe that the Treasury will be entirely relaxed about the story, and doubtful whether the original inspiration for it came from the Downing Street publicity operation.  Study, by contrast, Ken Clarke's interview.  Did the Justice Secretary choose to drop in yesterday for a casual chat with his old mates at the Sun?  Perhaps, but I doubt it.  The interview looks more like a bridge-building exercise after Clarke's recent suggestions that fewer criminals should go to prison.  The Sun's seen within government as an important opinion-former - especially in relation to law and order, on which it takes a tough line.

CLARKE HAPPY Legend tells of a "difficult" lunch, during the last Parliament, between senior Sun editors and Dominic Grieve, then Shadow Home Secretary - at which his liberal instincts on some criminal justice matters didn't meet eye to eye with their more rebarbative ones.  Downing Street will be keen to ensure that Clarke and the paper enjoy better relations, and it wouldn't be surprising if the interview idea came from there.  But there's more to the Duncan Smith briefings and Clarke interview than an everyday story of Government media management.  They point to two big unresolved policy decisions.

The first is: should fewer criminals go to jail?  The Sun says that Clarke "is still in favour of most short-term sentences - and Lib Dem plans for the coalition to do away with them have been blocked".  The suggestion that the Liberal Democrats support such proposals and that the Justice Secretary doesn't is eyebrow-raising: it's at odds, for example, with his recent speech to the Centre for Crime and Justice studies.  The rehabilitation ideas in Clarke's Sun interview are excellent: prison should seek to reform as well as punish (and deter).  But his previous, repeated assertion that there's no connection between more prison sentences and falling crime is very shaky - study carefully Full Fact's analysis here.  It's difficult to believe that he doesn't still hold it.

The second is: to what degree should the Government spend to save on welfare?  In easier economic conditions, Osborne and Duncan Smith would have more room to march in step.  But given the scale of the deficit, they've far less space for manoevre.  Furthermore, the Treasury's raised the stakes by suggesting to other spending Departments that the more Work and Pensions can save, the more they'll have to spend.  Today's Clarke interview looks like a political exercise.  By contrast, the Duncan Smith stories are in deadly earnest.  The Work and Pensions Secretary is dedicated to social justice and has little conventional ambition (his spell as Party Leader seems to have cured him of that).  For the deprived, this is great news.  But for the Government, there may be trouble ahead.


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