When a minister is needed to feed the ever-restive Tory beast with some red meat, you could do a lot worse than Chris Grayling. The tribunes of the anti-European, anti-gay marriage cohort looked to him for some reassurance that the Government had not all turned cuddly. And the Justice Secretary, no slouch in playing to the right-wing gallery, did not disappoint.
First up was Christopher Chope, a veteran awkward squaddie who asked him a wonderfully open-ended question. What did he consider “to be the most intolerable aspects of the United Kingdom’s current relationship with the European Union?”
Grayling, pausing for a nano-second, was clearly spoilt for choice. So much so that Speaker John Bercow cautioned him to “be brief” lest he run through the whole gamut of atrocities emanating from Brussels. Given that he didn’t have much time, Grayling said regretfully: “I would simply say that the European Commission’s recent decision to publish a justice scorecard assessing justice systems across Europe, and making recommendations for their improvement, is one that this country neither welcomes nor intends to co-operate with.”
So Chope had a result. As did his equally rebellious colleague Philip Davies who, mentioning the recent release of Vicky Pryce and Chris Huhne “after serving just two months of an eight-month sentence”, backed the “overwhelming majority of my constituents who believe that prisoners should serve their sentences in full.” Watch this space, was the response from the professedly sympathetic Secretary of State. He had been looking “closely” at the issue of better matching time served to future sentences and hoped to be “able to provide further reassurances to him in due course”.
Grayling reminded MPs, unprompted, that he had banned certificate-18 DVDs and subscription TV, imposed a longer working day on prisoners, and decreed that “if they behave badly or do not engage with rehabilitation activities they will be stripped of their privileges”. And in a piece of subliminal Lib Dem-bashing, he responded to a Labour question on the European Convention of Human Rights by confirming that while the “coalition government” – the italics were audible – did not support withdrawal, “my party” was looking at proposals on the topic to put to the electorate in 2015.
All this was mysteriously watched from the public gallery by the comedian and actor Russell Brand, possibly to remind himself of the dire consequences under Grayling’s regime if he should ever think about returning to his colourful drug-fuelled past.
Sure enough, when Grayling’s junior minister Jeremy Wright (whose plodding speech tunes are eerily similar to those of Ray Mallard, the fictional reporter in the old cult radio series People Like Us) was soporifically commending “through the gate reforms” to deal with drug-addicted offenders, Philip Davies loudly declared: “Lock ‘em up for longer.”
Brand slipped out before the end. He had obviously heard enough to get the message.