Clegg supports embattled Clarke '200 per cent' on prison reform

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Indy Politics

Nick Clegg weighed in behind Ken Clarke yesterday, as the embattled Justice Secretary continues to tussle with Downing Street and other Tory Cabinet ministers over sentencing policy. The Deputy Prime Minister said he supported his Conservative Cabinet colleague "200 per cent" in his effort to cut prison numbers, praising him as "radical, brave and innovative".

His comments came amid growing coalition strains over Mr Clarke's call for a "rehabilitation revolution" designed to cut the jail population. His reforming instincts have antagonised the Right of the Tory Party, who accuse him of being soft on crime.

Downing Street intervened to overrule Clarke when he suggested he wanted to scrap minimum sentences for murderers. And the Cabinet policy split was laid bare this week when Theresa May, the Home Secretary, contradicted Mr Clarke by insisting: "Prison works."

Yesterday Mr Clegg signalled his support for his fellow minister, making plain he would fiercely oppose any attempt by David Cameron to remove the Justice Secretary or switch him to a less politically sensitive post.

Mr Clegg told The Independent: "I back Ken Clarke 200 per cent. I think what he is doing is radical, brave and innovative.

"Why? Because he is asking a very simple question, which is this: 'Can we have a criminal justice system in which we have more and more and more people in prison at great expense only to see more and more of them come out and commit more crime?'

"The revolving door of crime is producing industrial-scale levels of repeat offending in this country – much higher than many other jurisdictions elsewhere in the developed world." In an apparent rebuke to Ms May, Mr Clegg added: "Prison doesn't work if all it does is to make criminals better criminals."

Senior Liberal Democrats have become fiercely protective of Mr Clarke in recent months, with one source describing him as the "sixth Lib Dem cabinet minister". They acknowledge that the doubts over the Justice Secretary have reached Downing Street, which is sensitive to the portrayal of Mr Clarke's proposals in Tory-supporting tabloids.

* Mr Clegg is to about to appoint his first head of communications, amid alarm within the party that it is failing to get its message across. Although the personal relationship between Mr Clegg and Mr Cameron is strong, some senior Liberal Democrats fear that their party lacks clout in Whitehall departments and that Mr Clegg needs more aides to help him carry out his role as Deputy Prime Minister.