Ken Clarke sought to pacify his critics within the Conservative Party with a bullish speech to the conference, couched in harsh rhetoric about crime.
The Justice Secretary drew ire from the right of the party in the summer, when he suggested increased use of community sentences to reduce the number of people being sent to jail on short sentences.
“Don’t worry,” he told a packed conference hall today. “I have not become some woolly-minded idealist since I was last a reforming minister. I am under no illusions about the British criminal class.”
The one-time chancellor stressed his right-wing credentials, proudly declaring that “I am a deficit hawk”, and setting up this and his prison reforms — criticised for being too liberal — as part of the same reformist project.
While he lambasted Labour for talking tough but failing to reduce the number of criminals that reoffend, Clarke indulged in some tough talk of his own. For serious criminals, “prison is the only punishment that the public expects and accepts”. He stressed the rights and feelings of the victims of reoffenders, rather than the so-called “criminal class” condemned to poverty and cycles of deprivation.
The key word here was “toughness”. This was an obvious attempt to circumvent the charge that is on the wrong side of the law and order debate for a Conservative: community sentences must be “tougher”, revalued in the model of France or Germany. Prisons, too, must be “tougher places of hard work.” It’s the same idea that we heard in June — indeed, the campaign against short sentences is supported by Ed Miliband — but with a shift in language, it’s dressed up as something more palatable to the Tory grassroots.
Yet the crowd was unsure. The central policy announcement was that prisoners should be made to work a 40 hour week in prison to tackle idleness and prepare them for the world outside. This should play well to the Tory right, but there was only tentative applause, or even silence, when Clarke strayed too far from the “toughness” message.
His suggestion that prisoners be paid the national minimum wage for this work in prison is unlikely to garner much support from those within the party who already see his proposals as too lenient, though he claimed that this money would go towards restitution for victims.
The Justice Secretary went some way towards getting his party on side today, but still has some convincing to do.