Thursday, May 19, 2011

Ken Clarke Rehabilitates Himself In Wormwood Scrubs

There was much discussion on the BBC Question Time programme tonight about the purpose of prisons in rehabilitating prisoners, but there can be little doubt that one man certainly used his prison opportunity to good effect, and that was the Justice Secretary himself, Ken Clarke.

After a torrid day yesterday, when his perhaps too casual words in a radio interview caused a mini media flurry, and even the demand from Ed Miliband that he should be sacked, Clarke showed this evening why he is still one of the government's great performers.

First off, his response to a harshly worded question about whether he was "clumsy, wrong or misconstrued" in his remarks was "probably a bit of each", followed by what appeared to be a heartfelt bit of contrition that was heard in silence by the audience, and then applauded. He was helped by an articulate and supportive Shami Shakrabati, and even Jack Straw was reluctant to endorse his own leader's call for Clarke's sacking. But the fact remained, a day after traipsing from studio to studio in a ridiculous media fest that would have worn lesser men out, Clarke re-appeared today on the jungle of Question Time, a programme that frequently spits politicians out, and quickly won his audience round. Not because they necessarily agreed with him on prison sentencing - many clearly didn't - but because he argued his case effectively, non-patronisingly and with, for Clarke, a surprising degree of humility!

With the rape question over - having been fully and intelligently discussed by one of the best recent Question Time audiences - Clarke and Shakrabarti then appeared to be in an unusual alliance of the humane and liberal-minded against the authoritarians Jack Straw and Melanie Phillips. Clarke remained effective throughout the programme, but at no point more so than when he responded to Melanie Phillips' crude call to shut down the Department for International Development, that much maligned purveyor of aid to the world's poor. His defence of overseas aid was one which should be heard more widely, and gave eloquent voice to the natural international corollary of One Nation politics.

Clarke maintained a strong position throughout the programme, and the audience - not in fact made up of prisoners and prison warders, but largely the usual cross-section of society as noted by Nick Robinson - was generally sympathetic and responsive to him.

There aren't many members of David Cameron's cabinet with wide public appeal; an appeal that can usefully cross party boundaries and suspend the toxic waft that often accompanies Tory spokesmen. Clarke, however, remains one of them, and the suggestion that he's 'lost it', should have been firmly laid to rest by tonight's performance. As for the absent Ed Miliband, if he isn't now regretting his ill-judged call for Clarke's sacking, he lacks even the limited political nous his detractors credit him with.

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