February 18, 2011 10:39 pm

Tory bruiser sets about cutting deficit with relish

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Ken Clarke is in clover. The 70-year-old former chancellor, health, education and home secretary is back on one of his old stomping grounds and loving it.

Other ministers may be under attack for their policies. But the justice secretary is facing far more personal assaults from his party’s right, along with a vitriolic campaign from parts of the tabloid press – partly over his famously pro-European views but also over his ditching of Michael Howard’s “prison works” mantra in favour of a “rehabilitation revolution”.

It is one he hopes will help him cut 23 per cent, or about £2bn, from his £9bn criminal justice budget over the next four years.

“But I enjoy being back,” he says. “First, I am contributing to cutting the deficit, about which I’m very keen. I’m totally supportive of George Osborne’s economic policy and was constantly urging it upon him before and after the election. We are trying to take 23 per cent out of the budget. I don’t recall any government that’s ever tried to make any spending reductions on law and order – let alone 23 per cent.

“And second, I can combine that with radical reform. So the two things happily combine. If you just took 23 per cent out of the budget here, you would cause mayhem.”

So there is a chance for a radical rethink about “exactly how best you protect the public and what is a modern and intelligent way of running the justice system”, he adds. That involves cuts to legal aid, shrinking the courts, trying to reform sentencing and finding new ways to pay people entirely, or largely, by results if they reduce reoffending.

With that goes a reduction of 15,000 staff, as he aims to make £1bn of the £2bn savings from administrative costs.

Despite the cuts, morale is high: “The staff here are all about 15 years old, as far as I can see, but they’re very keen.” He stresses the coalition will finally be judged not by its vast range of policies but on their delivery.

“Making the speeches is the easy bit,” he says. “It is the actual ability to deliver it on the ground in the teeth of considerable controversy that determines the fate of a government.”

And he relishes that controversy. “It’s a perverse part of me that likes a crisis and likes a problem and likes the rows. The only times I didn’t enjoy government was when it got dull – just running the business.”

There are, he concedes, questions about the government’s capacity to implement such a range of initiatives. But it can be done, he argues, because “there’s more evolution than people realise”. The health reforms, he says, carry on from where he started more than 20 years ago and from what Tony Blair was doing.

“Education reform? With great respect to Michael [Gove], he has got some new things, but it ain’t all new – academies we used to call city technology colleges in my day.

“So it is not ‘revolution in our time’. Even in my area, people have been trying rehabilitation programmes for as long as I can remember. It’s just that the delivery of them seems to have been quite appalling.”

As for his own position – he is the bookies’ favourite to be the first cabinet minister to be fired – he does not give a damn. The bruised bruiser – he has a scar on his head after stumbling in Speaker’s Court – says: “I’m not here trying to catch the selector’s eye. I am here because I rather enjoy being lord chancellor and trying to carry out some reform.” And given the scale of the deficit, the large reach of that reform “is essential”.

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