David Cameron issued a humiliating rebuke to the Justice minister, Crispin Blunt, yesterday by overturning his plan to bring back party nights and comedy workshops for prisoners.
Alarmed by headlines in Tory tabloids suggesting that taxpayers were paying for "prison parties", Downing Street ordered the Ministry of Justice to scrap the proposal. Mr Blunt was accused of a freelance operation and not clearing a speech in which he outlined his plans with No 10. Although he is said to have blotted his copybook, he will keep his job.
Ironically, Mr Blunt had used his speech on Wednesday to attack the previous Labour government for curbing arts activities in jails because of "flakiness under pressure" from the media. He said: "At the slightest whiff of criticism from the popular press, policy tended to get changed and the consequence of an absurd overreaction to offenders being exposed to comedy in prison was this deleterious, damaging and daft instruction."
Mr Blunt, who is responsible for prisons, said: "We recognise that arts activities can play a valuable role in helping offenders to address issues such as communication problems and low self-esteem, and enabling them to engage in programmes that address their offending behaviour." He announced that the ban on parties and comedy workshops imposed by Labour two years ago would be lifted.
Now it will remain after Downing Street's intervention. Mr Cameron's official spokesman said: "No 10 has instructed...that there will be no prison parties. There are some things which are unacceptable."
Downing Street also dismissed hints in Mr Blunt's speech that the Government might end indeterminate sentences, which allow judges to lock up the most serious offenders indefinitely to protect the public.
Mr Cameron's move reflects concern among Tory MPs that Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary, risks alienating the party's natural supporters by wanting to send fewer people to prison. Although No 10 is prepared to see a shake-up of sentencing, Mr Blunt's proposal was seen as a step too far.
Jack Straw, the shadow Justice Secretary, said: "This is chaotic stuff and very early in the Government's term. So much for claims there is a new formality within the British Government to ensure collective decision-making."