Leading article: A reversal that demonstrates not strength, but weakness

David Cameron seems incapable of following a reforming line on sentencing when under attack

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The word has gone out that Ken Clarke's proposals to extend the use of plea bargaining in the criminal justice system have been "shelved" after a meeting with the Prime Minister. Proposals in last year's Justice Department Green Paper to allow the accused to get a 50 per cent reduction in their sentence if they plead guilty immediately after being charged were apparently too much for Mr Cameron and his advisers to swallow. The plans will not, we are told, make an appearance in the Sentencing Bill due to appear this month.

This decision is profoundly wrongheaded. Increasing the scope of plea bargaining would be a way of making the wheels of the criminal justice system run more smoothly. More than two-thirds of cases that reach the Crown Court end in a guilty plea. This not only adds up to a huge amount of unnecessary court and police costs, it augments the trauma of victims, who are left wondering whether or not they will be called to give evidence. Increasing the incentive for those charged with a serious offence to admit their guilt earlier is both cost-effective and compassionate.

The reversal is also ominous for the broader criminal justice reform agenda. Now that greater plea bargaining has been rejected, the opponents of Mr Clarke are certain to go after the rest of his proposals, such as increasing the use of tough community sentences (instead of custody) and shorter prison terms. Right-wing Conservative backbenchers were certainly applying the pressure on the Justice Secretary ruthlessly yesterday. The fact that Mr Clarke's bitterest enemies are in his own party underlines how foolish it was of Labour to attack the Government from the right on sentencing.

This abrupt about-turn over plea bargaining follows the Government's "pause" on the NHS Bill and its ditching of the policy on forest privatisation. Those sympathetic to Mr Cameron have sought to present these various reversals as indications of strong leadership, arguing that they show a Prime Minister who is courageous enough to overrule his Cabinet colleagues if he feels it is necessary. In fact, the opposite is true. What this flip-flopping demonstrates is weakness.

In the case of sentencing, it shows Mr Cameron to be incapable of following a reforming line when he comes under attack from his own backbenchers and the right-wing press. Mr Cameron used to style himself a liberal moderniser. But he is evidently just as much in thrall to the Tory right as predecessors such as Michael Howard and Iain Duncan Smith.

Increasing plea bargaining would have been one of the few sensible cuts to public spending. Dropping it opens up a £130m hole in the Justice Department budget. Now more money will have to be found from elsewhere. The Treasury was quick to stress yesterday that the department's spending settlement will not be re-opened. But suddenly the pledge from Mr Cameron that reducing the deficit is the central purpose of this Government looks less credible. Appeasing the law-and-order lobby is apparently just as important to Downing Street. Other ministers will have taken note.

In the case of the NHS, the change of course shows a failure to think through the consequences of a misguided reform. Andrew Lansley's proposal to impose a structural overhaul on the NHS, to be completed in just three years, was always going to end badly. Mr Cameron has bowed to the inevitable. But he does not deserve credit for recognising the imperative to change course; he deserves blame for giving the green light to these plans in the first place.

This newspaper's poll of polls today demonstrates that Mr Cameron's personal ratings are holding up well in comparison to those of Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband. If these bad decisions and chaotic reversals continue, however, that could change dramatically.

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