The moment Ken Clarke leaves office, his encouraging legacy goes out the window

The former justice secretary has had to witness Chris Grayling, his successor, turn the government's approach to law and order on its head

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Poor old Ken Clarke. It's hard to think of a minister whose legacy has been so comprehensively banjaxed by his successor – except, perhaps, Ken Clarke, when he was replaced by Michael Howard as Home Secretary in 1992. This time around, Chris Grayling has taken over at the Justice Department and the Government's approach to law and order has been turned on its head.

Where Clarke seriously advocated a reduction in prisoner numbers, Grayling said he had "no plans" to do so except by sending foreigners home. Where Clarke focused on rehabilitation to protect people from more crime, Grayling has made a neat pivot to the householder's right to bludgeon intruders to death as a means of doing the same.

Yesterday Grayling added to that policy by telling the Conservative Party Conference that he would change the law so anyone who committed two serious violent or sexual crimes would receive a mandatory life sentence. As the less thoughtful clapped their hands, those who believe in actual common sense rather than the populist kind slapped their foreheads. Just like the plan to let people use "disproportionate" force, it's a move mostly designed to portray the minister as a tough guy; it is, on the other hand, not correspondingly clear that it will do any good.

A small-time thief in California is serving 25 years for nicking a set of golf clubs

The evidence about mandatory sentences of this sort is not all that encouraging. In the US, they've been taken to absurd extremes, such that a small-time thief in California is serving 25 years for nicking a set of golf clubs. We've had them before in the UK, but they've been mitigated by amendments allowing judicial discretion if the sentence seems excessive. Grayling has made no mention of wanting to allow similar latitude.

And so the message is a surreal one: that the Government, which makes law ignorant of the details of a specific case, is in a better position to decide a criminal's fate than a judge, who sits and listens to every last cough and spit of the evidence. Conservatives are supposed to want to devolve power, to trust good people to make good decisions. But place this proposal alongside the business about disproportionate force, which tells the police and the CPS that they shouldn't exercise discretion about what might constitute unnecessary violence, and a different picture emerges. It's one that reveals power taken from experts and handed to politicians – more specifically, to Grayling, a man with no legal background. Clarke might not have been sufficiently swish or tabloid-oriented to be a part of the modern Tory establishment. But he did, at least, understand that basic matter of Conservative principle. I miss him more and more.

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