It must be quite hard to lead a party that's in the doldrums, and which has just performed appallingly in local elections at a time when you might expect it to perform rather well. It must be quite hard to have to stand every week at a despatch box opposite a man who seems to have more charisma than you. It must be quite hard to have people going on and on about your adenoids. But although it must be quite hard, and although you must be very keen to make political points when you can, and although you must have your aides scanning the media for opportunities to make them, it's nothing less than disgraceful for Ed Miliband to have called yesterday for the sacking of Ken Clarke.
People who only heard for the call for the sacking must have wondered what the Justice Secretary had done wrong. It couldn't have been his expenses, because you can fiddle your expenses, even when you're in the Cabinet, and just get given a week off. It couldn't have been anything to do with driving, or with newspapers, because you can have misunderstandings about your driving, and with newspapers, and still give statements to the House. Could Ken Clarke, who has been married to his first and only wife for 46 years, have finally been embroiled in a sex scandal? Could he have been found leaping on a cleaner in the House of Commons or chasing a maid around a hotel room? No, it was much more serious than that. The Justice Secretary, said Miliband, in a voice that sounded much deeper than usual, and which had lost its glottal stops, had said on the radio that "there was serious rape, and other categories of rape".
Clarke, said Miliband, squinting at his notes, had distinguished between "date rape", where "17-year-olds have sex with 15-year-olds", and "other categories of forcible rape". This, it turned out, was a terrible thing to do. It was such a terrible thing to do, and so insulting to the "women of this country", that "the Justice Secretary should not be in his post at the end of today". Never mind the Hush Puppies. Never mind the real ale. One of the most popular politicians in the country had shown that he wasn't a really good bloke, but a woman-hating monster.
I know that politicians are busy. I know that leaders of the opposition are very busy practising their jokes for Prime Minister's Questions, and trying to control their lisp. I know that Ed Miliband probably only had time to glance at the soundbites his aides had dug out for him, and learn the points they had made for him, and practise lowering his voice. But if he had actually listened to the interview, with Victoria Derbyshire on Radio 5 Live yesterday morning, and still thought that an honourable man trying to do his job well should actually be sacked, then the Labour party has a much, much bigger problem than Ed Miliband's adenoids.
Clarke was on the radio to talk about his proposal to halve jail sentences for people who plead guilty at an early stage. "People believe," said Derbyshire, perhaps speaking for the "women of the nation", that "you should make an exception for rapists". So why, she asked, wasn't he?
Clarke, sounding genial, and not realising that you're meant to use a special tone of voice when you talk about things like rape, said that many people didn't realise that you already got a "discount" of a third off your sentence for pleading guilty, and that rape was actually the "strongest example" of why. He said that if someone "stops messing about, stops accusing the people accusing him of being liars, and stops a great, long trial," then he "relieves the victim of going through the whole ordeal again". But had he, said Derbyshire, actually met any women who had been raped? Yes, said Clarke. He had taken part in rape trials as a lawyer. He had, therefore, some experience of observing at close hand women who were "already distressed and traumatised" by the rape having to go "over the whole thing again". But had he, asked Derbyshire, met women who had been raped recently? Clarke said he hadn't. " I don't," he said, "think rape has changed all that much."
In this, Ken Clarke is wrong. Rape has changed quite a lot. Rape itself is, of course, the horrible, brutal, violent and profoundly distressing crime that it has always been, and one that should be paid for with a prison sentence. But what has changed, which Clarke, as a member of the not-nearly-Next generation has now learnt, is the language around rape. When Derbyshire said that the average sentence for a rape was five years, which could, if his plans went through, mean that the rapist would only serve a bit over a year, Clarke drew a distinction between the date rape of a consenting 15 year-old with a 17-year old, and a "forcible rape", which he also called a "serious rape", "with violence". It was a shame he used the word "serious". I think it's unlikely that a Justice Secretary would think that committing a criminal sexual offence, of sex with someone under the legal age of consent, wasn't serious. And, later in the interview, he made it clear that he thought it was. "She's under age," he said. "She can't consent," he said. "Anybody who's having sex with a 15-year-old, that's rape." But what he did think, which I'd have thought anyone except a madman, or a Miliband, would think, is that some sex crimes are more serious than others.
I don't know whether Julian Assange is guilty of the sex crimes that two Swedish women say he has committed. If he had sexual intercourse without a condom with a woman who was asleep, that's a serious business, and one which the Swedish law classifies as rape. But I'm pretty sure that sex with someone you had sex with earlier, and who was probably planning to have sex with you again, when you're on a date, and lying naked in bed next to them, without violence, is not as serious as forced sex with a stranger. As forced sex, in fact, of the kind that Dominique Strauss-Kahn may or may not have tried to have in a New York hotel room. Both are criminal offences, but the judge and jury will probably decide that one will get a harsher sentence than the other. To say that one is more serious than the other doesn't mean that the other isn't serious. It's quite hard to see how anyone, except a fundamentalist, could think it could.
The real scandal, when it comes to rape, is that only 6 per cent of rapes reported to the police end in a conviction. This is precisely the injustice that Ken Clarke was trying to address. I'd like him to get on with it, and I'd like Ed Miliband to read one of the placards that some of his supporters sometimes wave. It says "Not in my name".