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30 May 2012

Clarke is an example to other Tories

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

By Richard Morris

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.

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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.