Early on in his government, David Cameron would complain jokily in private that he had more trouble with Kenneth Clarke, his Secretary of State for Justice, than with any of the Liberal Democrats around the cabinet table.
He solved that problem two years ago when he promoted Chris Grayling to the post and shunted Mr Clarke into the waiting room for Embarrassing Elderly Relatives. Unfortunately, the change has done nothing to serve the cause of justice. Mr Grayling has done the easy thing for a Conservative minister responsible for half of the old Home Office. He has appeased the Prime Minister by willingly accepting spending cuts, and he has courted the Tory press by adopting the most punitive posture possible towards prisoners.
The cuts to legal aid have gone so far that Alex Cameron QC, the Prime Minister's brother, successfully argued in court last week that his clients could not receive a fair trial because they could not afford to hire barristers to represent them.
Mr Grayling's short-sighted attitude to prisons is also storing up problems for the future. As we report today, he has blocked an independent inquiry into rape and sexual assault in jails. It is not clear whether his opposition arises from petulance at previous criticism from the Howard League, the prison reform charity that is carrying out the inquiry, or from a belief that any concern for the welfare of prisoners might be interpreted as "soft on crime". But it is outrageous that he seems to accept, by implication, that the risk of sexual assault is simply part of punishment for criminals.
Nor was this a single incident. Mr Grayling's decision last year to override prison governors' discretion and impose a blanket ban on prisoners receiving books was foolish and counterproductive. Last week, it was reported that, as a result of another decision to ban prisoners from wearing their own clothes, many are forced to wear prison clothes that are too small. This is foolish, counterproductive and petty.
Mr Grayling's willingness to play to the authoritarian gallery was also evident in his proposal for automatic jail sentences for a second possession of a knife. We are sure that he did not leak the letter opposing the plan by Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury, which was written the day after the fatal stabbing of Ann Maguire, the Leeds teacher. But it does seem that someone thought there was political advantage for the Tories in doing so, which is deeply regrettable.
However, Mr Grayling's proposal is badly enough flawed on its merits. Expanding the already bloated prison population would do nothing to reduce knife crime – and certainly would have done nothing to save Mrs Maguire, a case so terrible precisely because it is so extraordinarily rare – and would do everything to turn petty criminals into more serious ones.
But that is precisely the kind of argument to which Mr Grayling seems reluctant to listen. His refusal to allow the Prison Service to co-operate with the Howard League inquiry into sexual assault in jails confirms not only that he wants to pose as a harsh disciplinarian, but that he has little interest in facts, evidence or debate. This absence of curiosity is an unattractive feature in a senior minister but, worse than that, it is a mistake. Criminal justice and penal policy are difficult subjects. The public's desire to see serious crime punished severely is important, but it needs to be balanced by evidence of what works in crime prevention and rehabilitation.
It is enough to make us yearn for the return of Mr Clarke, a compassionate, one-nation Conservative and an experienced minister who is confident enough to fight for his beliefs.Reuse content