Clarke won’t go – thanks to Miliband

The Justice Secretary’s resignation wouldn’t have been good news for Labour in any case.

Kenneth Clarke has apologised following his comments on rape and rape sentencing yesterday. It wasn't the apology that saved his career, though – it was Ed Miliband.

The moment Miliband called for Clarke to be sacked, Clarke was safe. Sacking Clarke, or shifting him sideways, could have been a fillip for David Cameron. He would have looked swift and decisive. It would have also thrown a bone to the increasingly peeved right of his party, who think that the Tories are going soft on crime. Clarke's Europhilia and liberal tendencies do not make him popular with elements of his own party. Miliband's call for Clarke's head, however, took the option off the table for Cameron. If he had bowed to Miliband, he would have looked spineless.

Instead it looks as if Clarke will survive, if he continues to show suitable contrition. The irony, as my colleague George Eaton points out, is that many in the Labour Party don't want him to go – at least, not thinking from a policy point of view. Indeed, many in Labour seem to agree with Clarke's prison policies, as the New Statesman blogger Dan Hodges points out. Clarke is a liberal and competent minister who is attempting to turn the UK away from its over-reliance on prisons.

In terms of general policy, Clarke and Miliband are not disimilar when it comes to sentencing. Even when writing in the Sun – when a leader of the opposition should be at his or her blustering best on law and order – Miliband called for sentencing reform. He wrote:

Tougher prison sentences aren't always the answer. I think there are times when people get locked up and come out as harder criminals. Some non-violent offenders can be better punished with a tough community sentence, working off their debt to communities over months rather than getting off with a few days in jail.

Clarke is attempting to enact this type of policy. If he goes, the policy goes with him. What he said was stupid and betrayed a depressingly common prejudice that some rapes are not "serious" or violent, and he was right to apologise. But Miliband should not have called for him to go.

Even if Clarke were to be sacked and a more authoritarian justice secretary replaced him, Cameron would have looked weak briefly, but at what cost to Miliband and Labour? If Dominic Grieve had come in and started hammering criminals, there would have been no boost for Labour. No one – least of all Conservative politicians – loses votes for locking too many people up.

Yesterday was bad politics by Miliband. As Steve Richards points out in the Independent, a "leader of the opposition cannot call on ministerial resignations too often". With this in mind, Miliband has played his hand too early. Clarke won't go – and Miliband shouldn't want him to.

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Martin Sorrell: I support a second EU referendum

If the economy is not in great shape after two years, public opinion on Brexit could yet shift, says the WPP head.

On Labour’s weakness, if you take the market economy analogy, if you don’t have vigorous competitors you have a monopoly. That’s not good for prices and certainly not for competition. It breeds inefficiency, apathy, complacency, even arrogance. That applies to politics too.

A new party? Maybe, but Tom Friedman has a view that parties have outlived their purpose and with the changes that have taken place through globalisation, and will do through automation, what’s necessary is for parties not to realign but for new organisations and new structures to be developed.

Britain leaving the EU with no deal is a strong possibility. A lot of observers believe that will be the case, that it’s too complex a thing to work out within two years. To extend it beyond two years you need 27 states to approve.

The other thing one has to bear in mind is what’s going to happen to the EU over the next two years. There’s the French event to come, the German event and the possibility of an Italian event: an election or a referendum. If Le Pen was to win or if Merkel couldn’t form a government or if the Renzi and Berlusconi coalition lost out to Cinque Stelle, it might be a very different story. I think the EU could absorb a Portuguese exit or a Greek exit, or maybe even both of them exiting, I don’t think either the euro or the EU could withstand an Italian exit, which if Cinque Stelle was in control you might well see.

Whatever you think the long-term result would be, and I think the UK would grow faster inside than outside, even if Britain were to be faster outside, to get to that point is going to take a long time. The odds are there will be a period of disruption over the next two years and beyond. If we have a hard exit, which I think is the most likely outcome, it could be quite unpleasant in the short to medium term.

Personally, I do support a second referendum. Richard Branson says so, Tony Blair says so. I think the odds are diminishing all the time and with the triggering of Article 50 it will take another lurch down. But if things don’t get well over the two years, if the economy is not in great shape, maybe there will be a Brexit check at the end.

Martin Sorrell is the chairman and chief executive of WPP.

As told to George Eaton.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition