Justice Secretary repositions himself

Politics Reporter Harry Thompson looks at Chris Grayling’s attempt at a re-brand.

At the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, Chris Grayling made his first major policy announcements since being appointed Justice Secretary in David Cameron’s recent Cabinet reshuffle. The media have portrayed him as a prime indicator of the shift to the right that the reshuffle represented; a concession to rebellious Tory back-benchers, who have been disappointed and angry with the governments more socially liberal policies, such as the impending legalisation on gay marriage.

There is substantial evidence to support these claims too. In 2010, Mr Grayling backed the rights of B&B owners to ban gay couples on religious grounds, and just this week announced that homeowners should be allowed to use more than the currently defined ‘proportionate force’ to protect their homes from being burgled.

However, the shift to the right hasn’t been as clear cut as many expected. The first non-lawyer to hold the post of Lord Chancellor since 1558, this week announced policies clearly focused on that most sensible of doctrines, despite somehow evading the manifestos of the two main parties for years: rehabilitative justice. Mr Grayling spoke at the party conference of a ‘rehabilitation revolution’, stating that “if people go to prison they are very likely to come back again”, and outlined his plans to counter this.

He hailed a programme where older prisoners take a new, first time inmate under their wing, and work to prevent them reoffending. The older inmates are rewarded financially if their younger counterpart does not reoffend. This, proponents of the programme argue, gives new offenders a clear insight into what awaits them if they continue on their current path, and gives older inmates a financial incentive to help them come to this realisation. Indeed, Mr Grayling himself stated that he could think of “no-one more powerful” to promote rehabilitation among younger offenders, a surprising backing considering the scheme was started by his predecessor (and perhaps an ideological foe), Ken Clarke.

Mr Grayling’s insistence that he is not the tough right-winger he is painted as in the media is given further credence by the fact that he also shot down a traditional favourite policy of the right-wing grassroots, stating “I have never supported capital punishment”. The right wing of his party are also unlikely to look favourably on the rehabilitative mentoring programme, with some viewing it as immoral to give money to prisoners, and possibly even offensive to the victims and their families. The right have also traditionally indulged in a populist stance on justice, favouring a victim-centred approach and heavy handed punishments, such as Margaret Thatcher’s ‘short, sharp shock’ programme for young offenders in the 1980s.

New Labour under Tony Blair also took this route, with their approach being immortalised in the phrase “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. Money spent in poor areas to alleviate the crime-enhancing effects of poverty, yes, but a heavy handed approach when it came to sentencing and prisons nonetheless.

The political benefits of these strategies can be huge, helping perceptions of both strength and compassion (toward the victims), so it is perhaps no surprise that both major parties in the UK have subscribed to them in the last decade or so.

It seems Chris Grayling has used the party conference to shore up support in his own party by announcing new rights for victims of burglary, and also to attempt a rejection of his image as a right-wing attack-dog, in favour of a more centrist, reasonable image to match his heightened power and profile, in the wake of his promotion to a major cabinet post.

The motivation for this seems to be either a money-saving exercise; send less people to prison at a time of never-ending budget cuts; or to position himself as both a popular figure with his party’s grassroots and backbenchers, and to send a centrist message to the voters of the United Kingdom. With the most recent opinion polls finding Labour 10 points ahead of the Tories and Ed Miliband an astonishing 15 points ahead of David Cameron, following the Labour leader’s resoundingly successful conference speech, perhaps Chris Grayling won’t be the only prominent Conservative trying to paint himself as a potential leadership contender.

Harry Thompson