By Tim Montgomerie
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24 hours ago Ken Clarke was telling the House of Commons that mandatory sentences for 16 and 17 year-olds were "un-British". Today he's been forced to climb down in the face of a tenancious campaign by The Sun and from Conservative backbencher Nick de Bois, MP for Enfield North. The man The Sun calls "The Soft Justice Secretary" will now change the law and up to 400 knife-wielding teenagers will go to jail.
More than forty Conservative MPs had signed Mr de Bois' amendment to the sentencing bill which argued that 16 and 17 yo teenagers should face mandatory sentences for wielding a knife. The rebellion was potentially more serious for the Government than Monday's EU vote because Labour was backing Tory rebels and defeat was a real possibility.
The mishandling of the episode is another nail in the political coffin of Ken Clarke. Mandatory sentences for knife crime were promised by the Tory manifesto but the Justice Secretary had walked away from them. He has played fast and loose with the Conservative Party's law and order credentials for too long and much to the consternation of the much more hardline Home Secretary, Theresa May. At the earliest opportunity someone like Chris Grayling should be appointed to the Ministry of Justice. Grayling will reassure the Tory mainstream but also is 100% committed to prisoner rehabilitation and should therefore be acceptable to the Liberal Democrats.
The U-turn is another sign of the growing power of the Tory backbenches. 81 rebels on Monday on Europe and now more than forty rebels on knife crime. Rebellion is in the parliamentary party's bloodstream. The backbenches do not fear the Government Whips but the Government fears its backbenches. That's a very dangerous place for an administration that's only eighteen months old.