Liberal Democrats angrily accused the Conservatives of trying to exploit the classroom stabbing of the Leeds teacher Ann Maguire today as the Coalition parties went to war over sentencing for knife crime.
Nick Clegg is furious that confidential letters between ministers were selectively leaked to paint him as blocking moves by Chris Grayling, the Tory Justice Secretary, to ensure that offenders caught more than once with a knife are automatically jailed.
The Deputy Prime Minister has reservations about the cost of more prison places and believes it may be better to leave sentences to the discretion of judges. He is supported by the Treasury and Kenneth Clarke, the Tory Minister Without Portfolio.
A senior Lib Dem source said: “The Tories definitely leaked the letters. This is out of context and those seeking to exploit it on a party basis in such a tragic week will have to examine their own conscience. They are politicking.”
He added: “To jump the gun like this is quite extraordinary. The idea that Nick Clegg or any other Lib Dem would wish to make our society less safe is ridiculous. Quite rightly, there is ongoing debate across Government about how to improve policy on knife crime.”
Mr Clegg will protest to David Cameron about what he regards as a “serious matter.” The leak has made an early cabinet agreement on the issue less likely.
The Lib Dem source said: "Whilst minimum sentencing might sound attractive in media headlines, there is a serious risk it could undermine the role of the judges who are best place to decide on sentencing by virtue of their role. Sending youngsters automatically to jail regardless of the circumstances also has the potential to turn them into hardened criminals and can lead to more not less crime. The Lib Dems are interested in what actually works to tackle knife crime, rather than tough-sounding gimmicks."
The Coalition row comes amid a bitter feud between Mr Clegg and Michael Gove, the Tory Education Secretary, who opposed his £750 million plan to provide free school meals for all five- to seven-year-olds from September this year.
Last weekend Dominic Cummings, a former special adviser to Mr Gove, described Mr Clegg as “self-obssessed” and “revolting”. On Thursday, the Lib Dem leader hit back, calling Mr Cummings a “loopy ideologue” with “crackpot” ideas about the school system.
The leaked letters between ministers were leaked to the Daily Mail, whose front page headline today was: “In the week of teacher’s shocking classroom murder… Clegg bid to block knife crackdown”.
Yesterday Mr Gove backed Mr Grayling’s plans for tougher sentences. He told Sky News: "It is absolutely important that we use Parliament to communicate to the public - and to anyone tempted to carry a knife in public - that the sentence for behaving in this way will be clear and firm and tough."
Downing Street denied that the Prime Minister's team was trying to exploit the Leeds killing. "I would not accept that," his spokesman said. Mr Cameron said: "We have [already] toughened the rules on knife crime. We should continue to look at that and I'm sure we'll reach a good outcome on that issue."
Mr Grayling is concerned that four out of five people convicted of a knife crime avoid a prison sentence. He wants mandatory jail sentences introduced through an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, which returns to the Commons on 12 May. Nick de Bois, secretary of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, has tabled an amendment which has already won the backing of 24 Tory MPs. Adults aged 18 and over would get a mandatory six-month minimum sentence for two offences. Under-18s would face mandatory detention orders for four months - two months served and two months outside.
Whitehall insiders believe the split inside the Cabinet is unlikely to be resolved before the Commons debate is held.