Have you lost the plot?; A three-part series that explains the issues behind the news

Will Michael Howard squash the judges?
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The Home Secretary is infamous for springing new policies on the world in his party conference speeches. One year he came up with 20 law and order bright ideas, from jailing hunt saboteurs to evicting all squatters instantly. This time, with burglary and drug-dealing soaring, he couldn't promise what people really want - more police - because the Government is skint. Instead, there was a new big idea - blame the judges.

Criminals should be locked up for longer, and judges should be prevented from letting them off lightly, so Howard proposed taking away the judges' discretion to decide sentences for repeat offenders. Loud applause. Brian Mawhinney, the party chairman, and a series of anonymous "senior Tory sources" jumped on the bandwagon.

But for once the judges didn't lie down and take it. Within an hour the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor, donned his union leader's wig and made a public statement pointing out that in the view of every study of crime and punishment, Howard was talking nonsense. Fear of getting caught deterred criminals, long sentences did not. Prison experts joined in to point out that dozens of new jails would be needed to house the inmates for those extra years. In the real world, the policy seemed less of a rip-roaring good idea.

That was October. By December, even Howard's Cabinet colleague, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, was suggesting the idea was not a good one. Michael Howard mentioned it less and less.

A White Paper is promised in the spring. Most of Howard's conference- inspired policies change in the light of day but usually it is so long afterwards that no one notices. That is what makes him a successful politician, and it is likely to happen again, with somebody inserting a clause leaving judges the right to vary sentences after all, according to "special circumstances".