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Monday, October 02, 2006 

Same old Tories.

As the Conservatives gather for the yearly sleep-in, much of the sheen appears to have worn off the expensively buffed Cameron silver. The problem isn't just the usual Tory problems of an MP leaving his cancer-striken wife to run off with another woman, Francis Maude being exposed as having invested in some top-notch hardcore pornography, or questions about their election spending, it's rather the gathering itself. Let's face it, the average Conservative just isn't well, sexy enough, or usually a part of the iPod carrying, shopping 'n' fucking Notting Hell set. The constituency card-carrying Tory has political views ranging from the foaming at the mouth to the certified rabid, and never is this more clear than at their conference. As much as Cameron tries, it's the equivalent of teaching an old dog new tricks: how on earth is he going to convince the party faithful that well, being wet, might well win them the next election?

David Davis, bless him, at least likes to throw a few bones while he's tightening the leash. Making his big speech as shadow Home Secretary, he joked about wanting to hug hoodies a little tighter than Dave might have had in mind. Jenni Russell notes how his audience responded, and for the civil libertarian who admires some of the Tories principles in standing up to this draconian Labour government, there's not much to be cheerful about, judging the faithful's reaction. Still, at least Davis appears to believe in what he says about opposing 90 days, denouncing restrictions on liberty and defending fundamental freedoms.

Much of the rest of the speech was an attempt to hand-wring about crime and punishment. The Tories are being out-muscled by Labour - Reid handing over the keys to the Home Office to Rebekah Wade and all - so where do they go? Going further right may please the Daily Mail and the blue rinses, but they're in opposition, so it's difficult to agree with everything the party adjacent to them says but then say they should go further, and if they did, that might mean having to sacrifice their occasional victories over a split Neo-Labour. Davis then takes the middle approach. He too wants to build more prisons, and he's going to fill them up as well. On immigration they're not afraid to speak out honestly (for which read these bloody foreigners should jolly well go home) unlike the Labour party, despite Ruth Kelly's promises of debate to follow two other previous discussions, as Gary Younge writes.

Davis's points about prison aren't entirely without merit. He's completely right that it's not working at the minute, but he's wrong that it can work at all. His idea for prison to suddenly become a rehabilitation palace, where the great unwashed will go in and come out ready to guide old ladies across the street is fine in principle, but rather difficult to actually put into practice. Prison is not suddenly going to go through a great culture change, where the emphasis is on reform rather than punishment overnight. Such a sea change would take years. Making prisons literate and places where inmates come down off drugs is very noble, but it faces the fact that even with more spaces available, overcrowding will always be an issue, as will the need for staff training. The biggest problem is the bad influence of prison itself - not everyone there is going to co-operate or accept the need to learn to read, or accept treatment willingly or otherwise - which is half of the reason why so many may go in for minor offences and come out as career criminals. This is why Davis's big idea simply won't work: treatment and rehabilitation have to be in the community, not in the gulag.

It also fails to the recognise the fact that the school system currently fails so many, itself a major impact on crime, as is poverty. Prison needs to be there only for the most violent and the most dangerous, the repeat offenders who will not or cannot change their ways. No one should be failed, but unfortunately this is the way it is. The mentally ill, the young and ever increasing numbers of women are currently thrown away and forgotten about, when they would be better off not inside but outside, on the same programmes that Davis is advocating for jails. This would not of course though go down well with those in the hall, or the vast majority of ordinary voters, hence the compromise.

Davis also continues to support Dave's rave about the British bill of rights, a hopeless hodge podge when there's already a perfectly good law on the statute books, albeit one originally opposed by the party and loathed by the tabloids. Even Charles Falconer, not the most astute of politicians, realises that it's the best we're going to get.

Davis then has sort of missed a tick. He could have appealed directly to those who view the government's capitulation to the Murdoch agenda as utterly distasteful, promising to still be centrist but oppose the government nonetheless. Instead he and his party are left looking like the dinosaurs of old, waiting for eventual extinction. Nice party, said Dave, shame about the members. New Tories, new history repeating.

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