After David Cameron's rewriting of the justice bill, Kenneth Clarke's rehabilitative revolution lies in tatter
The brief illusion of liberal government disappeared with the publication of the sentencing bill on Tuesday. The Rose Garden promise had been for a calm coalition animated by progressive values and guided by reason. That promise was fleetingly fulfilled by the justice secretary, Ken Clarke. Last year he stood ready to unlock 20 years of failed thinking, with a green paper which accepted that Britain's drift towards mass incarceration was imposing an unacceptable human and financial cost. Now it has been decisively breached by a prime minister who once claimed to be a liberal Conservative.
Make no mistake: after David Cameron's rewriting of this bill, Mr Clarke's rehabilitative revolution lies in tatters. Its thrust had been to end avoidable incarceration and reinvest the money in doing something more productive than making bad people worse. Its detail consisted in drug treatment, work and training, but also – crucially – in specific plans that would have had the effect of cutting the number locked up by 6,450 as compared with the inherited plans. The biggest slice of that reduction was to come from a sensible move to relieve the pressure on Britain's creaking courts, by increasing the discount available for a guilty plea.
Mr Clarke jeopardised it all a few weeks ago with some singularly ill-chosen words which created the impression that some rapes were not serious. After that, the prime minister may have felt he had little choice but to stay the extra discount from the most heinous crimes, which he did a fortnight ago. Now he has gone further. He scrapped extra discounts across the board, and postponed a desperately needed rationalisation of indeterminate public protection sentences, under which thousands are currently unjustly banged up after their jail terms have elapsed. At a stroke, these moves knocked out nearly 4,000 of the notionally saved places, very likely enough to ensure that the current tally of inmates will not stabilise, but continue to rise. As if bent on securing that dismal outcome, Mr Cameron also announced new mandatory jail terms – the sort of eye-catching initiative associated with Tony Blair at his worst, and one that cuts entirely across Mr Clarke's stated desire to restore discretion to the judge who has listened to the facts of the case.
As Labour's Sadiq Khan pointed out, there will now be cuts to probation, cuts to youth offending teams and a fresh stretch on prison resources. What Mr Khan did not say is that the emerging retributive counterrevolution is the product of a rotten political culture, of which Labour is a part. Having promised to give Mr Clarke the space to reform, Ed Miliband called for his head in the midst of the rape row, and his party was shameless in damning the ending of remand for crimes that will not attract jail terms after sentence is passed – one of the few crumbs the justice secretary had salvaged. Even the Liberal Democrats have fallen eerily quiet. Many privately regarded the chance to get a grip on an out-of-control jail population as one of the most tangible benefits of coalition, but the third party's customary courage in criminal justice appeared to desert it as Mr Clarke hunted for friends.
But the greatest shame in this shaming tale is reserved for the prime minister. Where he belatedly bowed to reasoned objections over the NHS, this time he has been cowed by the tabloids. Having backed the Clarke plans in private, he emerged to trash them in public, calling his character into question the day after a Guardian/ICM poll revealed that his personal ratings had dived into negative territory. Mr Cameron has long faced both ways on crime, but on Tuesday he made his choice and lurched to the right by reheating the "two strikes and you're out" life sentences once associated with Michael Howard, the home secretary he worked for as a young man. For all his reinvention of the Tory aroma, liberal noses now catch a niff of the nasty party of old.