It is doubtless impossible to ease jail overcrowding without either letting more prisoners out early, or locking fewer of them up in the first place, as Jonathan Clifton urged on this site yesterday.  To date, Michael Gove has shunned the latter but shown himself open to the former – suggesting during the summer that prisoners who study hard might thus win early release.  His reputation as a right-wing reformer at education seems to have insulated him from criticism for a while, but unease about this aim has been growing among some Conservative backbenchers – step forward, Philip Davies – and parts of the centre-right press.  So it was that the Daily Mail went for David Cameron’s jugular in its front page splash yesterday before he floated letting out some inmates early: “Lock up prisoners just for weekend,” it declared.

The Prime Minister aired the proposal yesterday in one of his Monday speeches designed to shape the political week, and prove that neither the Government’s energies nor his own are drained by the EU referendum.  After a recent excursion on extremism, some in the lobby were expecting a major speech on education next.  Perhaps they were wrong.  Or maybe Cameron shifted to prisons to show how much he values the Justice Secretary, who he is struggling to keep onside for that referendum.  By the way, he name-checked Nick Herbert, who is leading a Tory pro-Remain campaign and wrote on this site yesterday.  Expect to see the latter, who is very able, in Cabinet in due course.

One critic of the Prime Minister told me yesterday that, in his view, Cameron is piggy-backing on Gove’s reforms – that he would have no chance to flaunt his One Nation credentials were another Justice Secretary in office.  But there is nothing wrong with publicising your policy.  And it was the Prime Minister who appointed Gove in the first place.  Peter Hoskin will write on this site later this week about how Cameron is hitting his stride on social reform, at last finding a One Nation theme that suits him and which he sticks to.  In Downing Street, Ameet Gill, the Prime Minister’s Director of Strategy, is driving the planning and delivery of these speeches.

The greatest achievement of the Coalition was Grown-Up Government – that’s to say, serious Ministers, such as Gove, Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa May, delivering radical public service reform that is built to last.  They can now bring a series of tried-and-tested principles to new parts of the public sector: autonomy, excellence, transparency (the last conjuring up the ghost of Steve Hilton).  Where Gove gave head teachers autonomy, he now wants to give it to prison governors.  Where he championed Teach First to improve the quality of teaching, he is now pushing for similar programme to bring more graduates into prison management.  Where he extended the principle of league tables, he now wants them for jails.  The Government is open to the question: why wasn’t all this done in the last Parliament?  But there is continuity as well as change in the Justice Secretary’s plans.

Gove’s junking of parts of what his predecessor did has been extensively chronicled, but in one area at least he is building on what Chris Grayling left him.  The latter worked to put a rocket up rehabilitation in order to cut reoffending, and break the cycle of crime, prison and more crime that can ruin the lives of victims and wastes that of criminals.  The average prisoner, Cameron said yesterday, has 16 previous convictions.  Michael Howard said that “prison works”, but the veracity of the claim depends on how those two words are read. In the sense of protecting public safety, prison clearly works.  In the sense of ending that cycle, it clearly doesn’t.

The Justice Secretary’s stress on education is at root one on character.  24 per cent of those in prison have been in care as a child.  49 per cent have an identifiable mental health problem. 47 per cent have no qualifications whatsoever.  This is a waste of human potential.  Needless to say, the proof of the One Nation pudding will be in the delivery, and Gove’s programme provokes many questions, such as what the timetable for the building of his proposed state-of-the-art prisons really is.  But the moral stress on turning lives round, in prison and out – through education and work – is absolutely right.  Family policy remains, but that is a story for another day.