Despised by the Tory right

James Turley says that Kenneth Clarke is telling his party exactly what it does not want to hear

Kenneth Clarke is a sufficiently experienced Conservative Party frontbencher to be widely reviled - especially among card-carrying Thatcherites. Despite being on the left of the party he has served in every Tory government from the election of Thatcher to the fall of John Major, and was snapped up by David Cameron when it came to his turn to appoint a cabinet.

He is no spring chicken, of course - and is surely aware that he is unlikely ever to lead his party, having failed to secure that post in three successive elections. So, with his eyes no longer on the greasy pole, he has felt able to be far more forthright than most on the principles and likely consequences of government policy. Far more than Nick Clegg’s hopelessly compromised Liberal Democrats, he has emerged as a kind of ersatz conscience of the government - a most unlikely role for a man perhaps most infamous for maintaining close links to the tobacco industry while serving as secretary of state for health.

The most recent controversies he has become embroiled in centre on the coalition’s economic policy of brutal cuts and the usefulness or otherwise of prisons. The first is conjunctural, relating to the concrete political-economic situation faced by the government; the second goes to the heart of a more or less timeless Tory verity: the need to be tough on ‘law and order’.

On the economic front, it is clear enough what being ‘on message’ constitutes for Cameron, Clegg and Osborne - cuts will be painful, but will surely issue in an economic recovery in the relatively short term. Clarke, however, is not trying to fool anyone: “We’re in for a long haul back to normality,” he warned The Daily Telegraph. “I don’t think middle England has quite taken on board the scale of the problem. That will emerge as the cuts start coming home” (February 22).

In the wake of militant student protests against cuts and fee hikes, and in advance of what looks to be a sizeable demonstration called - albeit hesitantly - by the TUC, this is the last thing that George Osborne wants his cabinet colleagues to tell the press. It is one thing talking about the clampdown on benefit scroungers; it is quite another to admit that ‘middle England’ is in for a battering as things get worse, and that economic recovery is not likely to ride to the rescue.

Though Clarke is a ‘deficit hawk’, and fully behind the cuts, the spin doctors and PR men in Westminster will worry that the germ of an idea will be planted; if the whole point of reducing the deficit is to avoid economic chaos, but no less a figure than the man who picked up the pieces at the treasury after Black Wednesday seems resigned to the inevitability of further convulsions, what exactly is the point? That he is so blasé about the prospect of serious suffering among the middle classes, meanwhile, is not likely to endear him to the Tory right - who, as we shall see, already have cause to despise him.

Clarke’s ministerial portfolio, meanwhile, puts him in charge of the department of justice - and has presented him with a whole host of further headaches. He is, perhaps, to be commended for responding to the ‘spirit of the age’ - deficit reduction - by making moderately serious proposals to reduce the overall prison population. The Telegraph interview already cited makes it clear that he has managed to cajole the government out of the preposterous Tory manifesto commitment to lock up everybody found in possession of a knife: “You’d send every fisherman in the country to prison,” he pointed out.

His department has already closed three prisons and, by specifically attacking, as he sees it, the causes of re-offending, as well as reducing the number of prisoners on indefinite sentences, he hopes to close more. Of course, we should not overrate his chances of success here. It is not like the British economy - or more or less any economy just now - is overflowing with jobs to keep reformed ex-cons out of trouble. Large-scale cuts in departmental budgets mean less room for drug rehabilitation schemes and so forth - and Clarke is no more likely than any Tory to abolish the insane policy of drug prohibition.

Nonetheless, his stance is an implicit repudiation of erstwhile cabinet colleague Michael Howard’s obscene dictum that “prison works.” Clarke is happy to admit that prison is not, even in the most narrowly capitalist of terms, a cost-effective way of reducing crime.

Rational calculations even of this philistine type, however, are not exactly the stock in trade of the Tory right and its supporters in the reactionary press. For them, prison is not a bureaucratically ordained, if slightly brutal, means to increase social cohesion; it is a matter of revenge fantasy against morally degenerate reprobates. One never reads a call for an ‘appropriate’ prison sentence in the Mail - more like ‘throw away the key’ or nothing.

If that were not enough to antagonise his supposed colleagues and supporters, Clarke’s job has suddenly become tied up with that other great bugbear of the Tory right - the European Union. In October 2005, John Hirst - serving a sentence for manslaughter - won his case at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which argued that the blanket exclusion of prisoners in the UK from the electoral franchise was contrary to the European convention on human rights. The UK government was thereby required to change the law - the details being unspecified. Labour talked about it, dithered and did nothing. Now it is the Tories’ job.

David Cameron declared that the thought of prisoners voting made him feel “physically sick”; his old nemesis, David Davis, put together a motion in parliament with Jack Straw - who seems increasingly on a mission to make Melanie Philips look like a bleeding-heart liberal - in defiance of the ruling. Yet the government is well aware that to defy the ECHR judgment would be to provoke a constitutional crisis (and remove some traction it currently has in horse-trading with Russia and elsewhere).

Clarke is particularly vulnerable to criticism - he is a leading pro-EU Tory, a matter which probably cost him the leadership on all those occasions. His rather grudging acceptance that prisoners serving under four years in prison should be allowed to vote is considered too generous - and his refusal to countenance a full break with the European court downright heretical.

It all adds up - and Clarke is now viewed as little better than a Lib Dem by a Tory right which considers him out of step with the grassroots (indeed, given that he has something of a spine, he is probably worse from their point of view). For some he has become a focal point for discontent with the coalition as a whole. It is, again, no surprise to see David Davis’s fingerprints on a pretty major attempt to embarrass the government - given that the motion to defy the EU and continue denying prisoners the vote got through the Commons with an overwhelming majority, a rather successful one too. The Guardian reports that Tory backbenchers are pressing for a cabinet reshuffle, and hoping to see Clarke replaced by (who else?) Michael Howard.

Will they get their way? It is hard to tell. Most likely, they will be thrown a sacrificial victim in the form of Caroline Spelman, who has been seen to make a real mess out of the proposed sell-off of large areas of forest, on which the government has been forced to backtrack. Cameron’s hold over his lunatic right wing seems to be relatively secure - for now. Yet it would not be surprising if, should the government fall before its full term is completed, the matter be forced by a Tory rebellion rather than a breakdown in relations between Cameron and Clegg.

The socially reactionary and chauvinistic nature of the opposition to the ECHR ruling should not lead one to imagine that they do not have one or two points in their favour. Communists, of course, support votes for prisoners - all prisoners, that is, not only those arbitrarily deemed worthy by a sniffily moralistic judiciary. This is hardly some mad fringe position, but common to existing legislation in many countries in Europe and elsewhere - of the signatories to the European Convention, it is overwhelmingly ex-Stalinist regimes that join Britain in denying votes to prisoners as a whole.

Yet we do not share the naive faith of many liberals in the ‘rule of law’, including ‘human rights’ law. It is perfectly legitimate for parliamentarians to object to a ruling being foisted upon them by unelected judges - whether in Strasbourg or London (with the recent controversy over the sex offenders register, both types of judgment have been major issues on the Commons floor in the last few weeks). Such political forms are in practice a check on democracy, not a support for it. These parliamentarians, of course, are utter hypocrites; they are wedded to the constitutional rule-of-law state, and want to pick and choose where to defy it for purely demagogic purposes; but the principle is correct. It is for us to force progressive measures on society through the power of the majority, not appeals to unelected judges.