Miliband’s U-turn on Clarke

The Labour leader has distanced himself from his call for the Justice Secretary to be sacked.

Ed Miliband has distanced himself from his call for Kenneth Clarke to be sacked over his comments on rape. Writing in the Independent, the leader of the opposition argues:

The slide from grace of Ken Clarke has caused some glum faces amongst those who believe in a better penal. People who share my belief in prison reform as part of a policy to cut crime are worried as they see him being edged towards the cabinet room exit door.

They are wrong.

The necessary reforms to our justice system will never be carried out successfully by a government, and by those like Ken Clarke and David Cameron, who are so woefully out of touch with the real world.

The tone of the piece is curious. It gives the impression that Miliband no longer thinks Clarke should be sacked. The column is a defence of Miliband's comments, rather than a reiteration of them. Miliband had 600 words to call for Clarke's sacking and failed to do so.

This is a U-turn, particularly when compared to what Miliband said in the Commons on Wednesday. Here's Hansard:

When the Prime Minister leaves the Chamber, he should go and look at the comments of the Justice Secretary – and let me just say to him very clearly: the Justice Secretary should not be in his post at the end of today. That is the first thing the Prime Minister should do. The second thing he should do is to drop this policy, because this policy, which they are defending, is the idea that if you plead guilty to rape you get your sentence halved. [Emphasis added]

Miliband was emphatic in the Commons. Yet two days later – and with Clarke looking safe in his position – the Labour leader has changed his tune. As I pointed out yesterday, Miliband cannot call for the heads of ministers willy-nilly without beginning to look like the boy who cried "wolf". No wonder he's trying to distance himself from the comment.

Calling for Clarke to go was bad politics because it was a call that was likely to go unheeded, particularly when Labour and the Conservatives have broadly similar policies with regard to sentencing in general. But rather than attempt to build a case for progressive and effective penal policy in the UK, Miliband took the opportunity to attack from the right – something he said he would not do.

Speaking at the Labour party conference in October, Miliband declared: "When Ken Clarke says we need to look at short sentences in prison because of high reoffending rates, I'm not going to say he's soft on crime." It looks like things have changed.

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era