Michael Gove will need to face down the right-wing press and many Tory MPs if he is to succeed with the biggest reform of the penal system in a generation, shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter said.

Speaking at a political debate, Slaughter said the lord chancellor will enjoy a ‘large measure of cross-party support’ if he perseveres.

Earlier this month, Gove told the Conservative party conference of his intention to bring ‘reforming zeal into the dark corners’ of the prison system, citing rehabilitation as a priority. But Slaughter warned that he faces formidable obstacles: ‘The Mail and the Sun won’t be on his side, and part of his own parliamentary party won’t be either.’

Slaughter acknowledged that Gove, who has ditched some of his predecessor’s more controversial policies, is an improvement on Chris Grayling. ‘We have a new lord chancellor and different is not always better. But in this case it is,’ he said.

However, Slaughter noted Gove’s relative silence on a new UK bill of rights, notwithstanding his victory in cabinet over the Saudi prison contract: ‘Gove “dipped his toe” into human rights with the Saudi decision, but we have heard very little so far. Perhaps the problems they will have (replacing the Human Rights Act with a bill of rights) are beginning to dawn on the government and they are having second thoughts.’

Solicitor-general Robert Buckland urged ‘patience’ as lawyers and others await proposals on a bill of rights, expected within weeks. ‘The concept of human rights has been with us much longer than the 1998 act and it does not help if one party tries to claim the mantle of “guardian” of human rights,’ he responded.