Leading article: Reverting to type on penal reform

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In the early months of the Coalition, Ken Clarke was as eloquent as a Tory ever could be about the futility of sending more and more criminals to jail. The prison population – then 85,000 – was "astonishing", the Justice Secretary said; keeping a prisoner in jail cost more than sending a boy to Eton, he noted, and often its only result was to produce "tougher criminals".

Sadly, in the 15 months since that courageous sally, Clarke has found himself ever more isolated, not only within his party but in Parliament as a whole. And yesterday he ran up the white flag. Only a politician with the hide of a rhinoceros – and the determination to make those gambling on his early departure pay up – would have had the cheek to announce policies diametrically opposed to those he championed last year. But Mr Clarke is such an individual.

The most significant changes unveiled yesterday are the introduction of mandatory life terms for anyone convicted of two "near-murderous attacks", and of mandatory terms for both adults and youths of 16 and over guilty of "aggravated" knife crimes. Neither proposal is entirely new. They were both trailed by David Cameron in June after the combination of his own backbenchers and the right-wing press forced him to overrule Mr Clarke on his effort to reduce prison numbers.

The Prime Minister was uncompromising. "The public need to know that dangerous criminals will be locked up for a very long time," he said at the time. "I am determined they will be." The populist tone has always been alien to Mr Clarke, but the fact that two-thirds of those convicted of looting during the riots had never been to prison fatally weakened his argument that jail is the main crucible of crime.

It has been a bruising year for the Justice Minister. He emerged from his latest scrap bloody, but still lamenting those "languishing" in jail on indeterminate sentences, "people who haven't the faintest idea when, if ever, they will get out". Such comments should stand as a warning to his enemies that his ideas are unchanged and he intends to stick around. It can only be hoped that a balmier climate for his civilised views will arrive while he is still in office.

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