David Cameron made a great show on Tuesday of pledging to be tough on crime. He bowdlerised the most contentious and liberal elements of Ken Clarke’s proposals and vowed that
"the right thing to do is to reform prison and make it work better, not cut sentences." He insisted that his change of heart was a sign of strength, but even the least cynical
observer could detect a sop to the mutinous Tory right.
Well, it seems that the withdrawal has not gone far enough. The Sunday Times reports (£) that several
backbenchers object to the redrafted Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, on grounds that manifesto pledges have been broken. For example, bail while awaiting trial or sentence
will count towards the total jail term for the first time. Also, the mandatory terms for threatening someone with a knife will actually be subject to judicial discretion.
Although such flexibility is common in the justice system, it is a step too far for some Tory MPs. Philip Davies says it is indicative of a bill that has “nothing to do with punishment and
the prevention of reoffending and everything to do with reducing the prison population.”
The Sunday Times refers to a specific admission in the bill that the prison service will save £80m annually by reducing demand for prison spaces by 2,650 a year. I’ve found no mention
of those exact figures in the bill; but that is immaterial. Cameron and Clarke have already ceded
ground and will be pressed to relinquish more by those MPs for whom law and order is sacrosanct. There is a danger that retreat will simply become inexorable.