In an article on this site last year, Edward Boyd of the Centre for Social Justice intimated that Ken Clarke did less to reform rehabilitation, and Chris Grayling more, than some expected.  As Boyd put it, the latter “injected energy and pace to the Ministry of Justice” – by not simply assuming that the probation service always knows best, and by bringing in private, voluntary and social expertise in order to save money and help lives.  Grayling’s commitment was a reminder that centre-right Conservatives are no less committed to helping vulnerable people than centre-left ones, and that he crafted one of the main works of social justice carried out under the last Government.

But while the former Justice Secretary was eager to apply new policies to people who’d left prison, he was less willing to do so to those who were still inside them.  This was understandable.  Clarke had been repeatedly pilloried in right-wing papers for being “soft on crime” – he originally wanted to send fewer criminals to jail – and Grayling had no intention of leaving himself open to the same charge.  This background makes the speech that his own successor, Michael Gove, delivered a week ago this morning even more remarkable.

Has his experience as Chief Whip left him with a sensitivity to those confined in run-down buildings with no guarantee of early release?  I ask because the most attention-grabbing part of his address was the suggestion that some prisoners might leave prison early – if they “make a commitment to serious educational activity, who show by their changed attitude that they wish to contribute to society and who work hard to acquire proper qualifications, which are externally validated and respected by employers,” he said.  But this suggestion was no a free-floating balloon, sent soaring into the air to attract attention. Rather, it was an intrinsic feature of a house built on solid principles.

At the core of these is the Christian belief in the dignity of man – part of St Matthew’s Gospel was quoted in the speech – Gove’s conviction that ignorance is itself a jail from which education can liberate us, and a very modern commitment to realising human potential.  Crime is an offence to that dignity, and prison is a response to this.  It is a manifestation of justice and a provider of public safety.  But since prisoners are people, no more or less than the rest of us, locking them up is necessary but not sufficient.  Prison must offer redemption as well as punishment.

The Justice Secretary rattled off some grisly statistics.   Over two in five prisoners saw domestic violence as a child and have no educational qualifications at all.  Just under one in five were taken into care as children and as many as one in three has learning difficulties: more than two in three have used class A drugs.  These figures were deployed in the speech not as excuses, but as explanations.  Just as children born into such conditions are less likely to succeed at school, he argued, so they are less likely to succeed in life – which is where his new idea on prison release earned by education reform comes in.

Gove is a more daring politician than his predecessor, and his speech could simply be considered on its own merits, or cited as evidence of its author’s character – of that now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t quality that makes him at once a hero of the Right for his confrontation of the Left over traditional learning, but at the same time a stalwart of Conservative modernisation over overseas aid, same-sex marriage, candidate change and working with Liberal Democrats (at least during the early years of coalition): he was very slow to come out against AV.

However, the Justice Secretary’s plans for prison reform are better viewed in a wider context – namely, that of his broader approach to his new responsibilities.  At first glance, it is different to that he took to education: once he stung, now he soothes.  Gove would point out that he praised, say, head teachers no less than he now praises prison governors (he wants to devolve more powers to the latter, just as he did to the former).  But there is an unmissable change of tone, for three main reasons. First, he went to Education directly from shadowing it, and had a programme for action ready to implement.  With Justice, he is feeling his way – hence his quiet tour, since appointment, of courtrooms and jails.

Second, he is no longer leading a protected department.  Education had some insulation against the public spending scaleback that took place during the last Parliament.  Justice will have far less under that coming during this one.  Gove will have a mass of prison officers and other workers on his back.  They are not well placed to plumb limitless depths of public sympathy, but the Justice Secretary will none the less be wary.  Prisons are “out-of-date, overcrowded and in far too many cases, insanitary and inadequate” – in the words of his own speech.  He doesn’t want riots on his watch.

Best, then, to charm where one may not be able to fund.  It may draw a bit of the force from the protests to come.  The third reason is more subtle.  Gove’s most prominent task of all is to deliver human rights reform.  Grayling threatened withdrawal from the ECHR.  Much of the Party wants this, but Gove can’t deliver it: the votes to do so simply aren’t there.  But as Nick Timothy has argued, it is hard to see how meaningful change can be fully delivered without quitting.  The Justice Secretary’s best option would seem to be replacing the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights, and adding that the balance of the Commons leaves reform as a work in progress.

Determining how one right trades off against another is a knotty business.  And when caught up not only with our own law, but with the ECHR, the EU and international agreements too, they become not so much a cats’ as tigers’ cradle. Of one thing we can be sure: Gove will eventually come to the Commons to explain, with all the loquacity of which he is capable, that he is not harming the cause of human rights but helping it.  When he does so, he will want as many lawyers on his side as possible, hence his diplomatic overtures – see his first speech on courts reform – as well as his intellectual work.

Which returns us to his speech – and challenges that will stretch even the Justice Secretary’s dexterity.  The prison reformers present “practically purred”, according to Ian Dunt.  But for long can Gove ride both the Howard League and the Sun, like a cossack daredevil straddling two horses?  And how will he deliver less crowded prisons with a budget scaleback of maybe a quarter coming? To that last question, he might reply that he is winning praise from the Treasury for going back to first principles: in other words, asking what his department should and shouldn’t be doing – and then looking for savings – rather than reaching for the salami-slicer. For example, has his eye on selling off Victorian-era jails.

And though some prisoners may exit prison early, thus easing overcrowding, he seems to have no plans to ensure that fewer enter – in other words, ease sentences. Perhaps this offers the answer to how he plans to keep the tabloids onside.  But elsewhere, he is distancing himself from Grayling even as he praises him – on new jails, for example, and prisoners’ books (though this last example was complicated by a court judgement).  Michael Howard said that “prison works”, thereby setting a course that his successors in government would follow.  Is Gove about to become the first to break from it?