Clarke is an example to other Tories

The U-turn on secret courts shows that the Justice Secretary understands coalition government.

One is the Septuagenarian, jazz-loving secretary of state for Chillaxation. The other is the Home Secretary, whom people used to call a safe pair of hands (they’ve stopped that now). Who is the more effective minister?

Easy. It’s Ken Clarke. Because he gets coalition government.

Contrast the progress on the two parts of the Queen's Speech that had "Tory policy" written all over them – the snoopers' charter and the plan for so-called "secret courts".

Now the former has a mountain of civil liberties issues attached – but was handled by everyone’s favourite liberal Tory, Clarke. While many on the Tory right like to portray him as a bumbling, out-of-touch loose cannon (can’t think why), isn’t it interesting how he’s engaged with the issues, heard the arguments, listened to the reservations raised by Nick Clegg in his letter to other members of the cabinet. And now he’s produced proposals that meet the concerns expressed, including notably that judges (not ministers) will decide when the new powers can be used and that they will not apply to inquests.

It’s not perfect – even Clarke himself says so. But it’s a hell of a lot better than it was. And the perfect example of how Lib Dems in government can make bad policy better.

Contrast that to the snooping bill. Looked after by Theresa May, there appears to be no such accommodation made. Instead we’ve had the usual cry of "you just don’t understand’. And as a result, the bill is in abeyance, moved from full to draft status in the Queen's Speech. To my knowledge, those draft proposals still have not been circulated to members of the Home Affairs Select Committee for review (I’m told this document that circulated after the Queen's Speech is nothing like the draft). Lib Dems, led by the redoubtable Julian Huppert, are up for a fight and there’s a steadfast determination to ensure nothing passes that increases the powers of RIPA.

The snoopers' charter is going to suffer the death by a thousand amendments.  And May is going to run very fast to go backwards.

Its funny. The Tory right are still convinced that they won the last election, that they should be free to invoke all the legislation they want. They’re wrong. If they want to make progress, they need to work with us, not fight us, and expect their legislation to be made more liberal, not less. I don’t expect the Lib Dems to get much credit for it from New Statesman readers. But I promise you – without us acting as a Tory brake, things would be a hell of a lot worse.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Getty Images.
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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.