The debate over Ken Clarke’s rape comments has quickly collapsed this morning into whether he is tough enough on crime. The Sun this morning says that “Ken must go” as “Labour is now tougher on crime than our Tory-led Government”. Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail writes:
“The Justice Secretary’s shortcomings are obvious, as well as saddening in a man who has been so formidable a politician. Less obvious, but actually more alarming, is Mr Cameron’s apparent willingness to go along with softer sentences for serious crimes such as rape. He can rail against the bumbling Mr Clarke as much as he likes. The real question behind yesterday’s drama is whether this Tory Prime Minister has a law and order policy worthy of the name.”
Meanwhile, liberals have jumped to his defence. Steve Richards, writing in the Independent, accused Ed Miliband of going too far by asking for Clarke’s resignation arguing:
“This was over the top, not least because Clarke is a genuinely liberal voice in a Conservative Party that could easily veer in a panic towards the populist, authoritarian right.”
But to paint Clarke as a liberal Justice Secretary – or a conservative one for that matter – is not the issue in hand. The overiding factor in the Coalition’s policy is the drive to cut costs. Under Clarke’s leadership, the Ministry of Justice plans to axe 14,000 jobs, including 9,940 who work in the National Offender Management Scheme, the executive agency in charge of reducing offending. The 23 per cent cuts in the Ministry of Justice’s budget which Clarke signed up to are the fourth steepest in Whitehall among major spending departments after Communities and Local Government; Business, Innovation and Skills; and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (See Table One of the Comprehensive Spending Review).
It is at this time that Clarke wants to experiment with untried and untested rehabiliation tactics and strategies. They may fail due to a lack of support – putting back the cause of penal reform for a generation. The greater tragedy would be the resultant increase in crime.
Rehabilitation costs money. A ‘prison works’ strategy costs money - as Clarke says it costs more to send a convict to jail than a schoolboy to Eton. The problem with Clarke is not that he’s soft or tough – its that he’s a cutter.