There is no reason to doubt justice secretary Michael Gove’s sincerity in seeking to ‘redeem’ prisoners who are ‘lost’, though this was unusually messianic language for a Conservative party conference. And Gove has the explicit support of the prime minister, who acknowledged in his own speech that the prison system is not working.
There are contradictions to resolve – retribution and rehabilitation are uneasy bedfellows, and a populist emphasis on the former has been very much at the expense of the latter.
But pragmatism is at play here, too. It will not have escaped Gove’s attention that at £3.4bn and rising, expenditure on prisons and parole is the single largest element in a budget from which he must make savings.
In the case of Heart v Head, the court seems set to find for Head. But remember, it was on the coalition government’s enlightened prisons policy that Ken Clarke stumbled as lord chancellor. It is over two decades since then home secretary Michael Howard declared that ‘prison works’, and many natural Conservatives still want to believe this.
The lord chancellor will have to defy his own party’s instincts on prison reform to disinter the ‘rehabilitation revolution’ so bullishly advocated by his predecessor but one.
Let us hope he perseveres.