Many lawyers recall Chris Grayling’s tenure at the Ministry of Justice as they would a bad dream, and it appears Michael Gove does too. The lord chancellor has briskly u-turned on a panoply of Grayling’s policies. From prisoners reading books to ditching a Saudi prison contract, Gove’s actions have even seen him lauded as a ‘liberal hero’ in parts of leftish media.
All rather ironic, given that the administration in which Grayling served as justice secretary had plenty of actual Liberals in it.
Like Grayling, Michael Gove has previously been characterised as an unflinching ideologue, but this underestimates his ability as much as his ambition. In berating the infamous ‘blob’ while education secretary, he showed he is not afraid to go into battle with the professional establishment. But there is rarely a political dividend in defending the blatantly indefensible.
There’s a pragmatic reason for Gove’s suppleness, too. In casting himself as an unabashed criminal justice reformer and champion of rehabilitation, he echoes another recent predecessor, Kenneth Clarke.
The latter was making good on his promise of a rehabilitation revolution when he made way for Grayling. The stark fact is a huge chunk of the MoJ’s budget goes on locking people up – £40 per year for every taxpayer. So if his (unringfenced) department is going to do its bit for Osborne and the deficit, Gove must get that number down. And quickly.