Leading Article: The voters aren't daft, Mr Howard

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Michael Howard in crime-fightin' guy mode resembles nothing so much as an American police chief up for re-election. His speech to the Tory faithful yesterday claimed much ("we are taking our country back from the criminals") and promised more. Despite all the other possible claims on the Government's time - and despite the fairly recent introduction of the Criminal Justice Act - the Home Secretary committed himself to a new Crime Bill to be introduced in the relatively short time between now and the next general election.

No one could accuse Chief Howard of subtlety - his timetable is almost painfully political. He plans to embarrass Labour by bringing forward measures that Jack Straw and his colleagues are bound either to oppose for their illiberality or that will divide them. Mr Howard knows full well that Labour believes (along with almost all the experts and the students of crime prevention) that longer and more mandatory sentences cause as many problems as they solve. And he judges that large sections of Middle Britain do not see it that way. The gulf is just waiting to be exploited.

Howard's way is clear. He will legislate for mandatory life sentences for second-time violent and sexual offenders and introduce stiffer minimum sentences for burglars and drug dealers. This, he argues, is what being tough on crime means. Those who oppose are therefore soft on crime.

Yet even as he basked in the inevitable ovation, Mr Howard knew one of these opponents was likely to be the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor. Only a week ago the two had a meeting in which Lord Taylordelivered his own strong preference for retaining the maximum discretion in sentencing. He argued that the problem in deterring crime lay in low rates of detection, not in short sentences.

Mr Howard is entitled to disagree with the views of the judiciary. He could have argued that they were ignoring this key fact, or overlooking that bit of evidence. But he didn't. Instead he spoke as though the argument had never been made. He simply ignored the Lord Chief Justice.

And just as Michael Portillo had earlier managed to offend the services by his crass invocation of the SAS and the British fighting man, so Mr Howard brought the wrath of another institution - the judiciary - down around his ears. For Lord Taylor is a man of our times, prepared (unlike his predecessors) to enter the public lists where he sees the need. His intervention was momentous. He dismissed the idea that the threat of longer sentences deters habitual criminals. "What deters them is the likelihood of being caught, which at the moment," he added scathingly, "is small." "Does anyone believe," he went on, "that a professional burglar, who knows he has at most only three chances in 20 of being caught, will be deterred by the addition of six months to his sentence?"

Michael Howard has calculated that the answer to Lord Taylor's question is yes. We are not so sure. Underestimating the electorate's intelligence is a game politicians play at their peril. Especially when someone as persuasive as Lord Taylor is around to put the record straight.