It is hard to find words adequate to describe the spectacle of Tony Blair's Commons spat with David Cameron, as each of the party leaders attempted to prove he was "tougher on crime" than the other. But let me try: it was like watching two eunuchs fighting over a pack of Viagra.
The proximate cause of their preposterous squabble was the fact that a sentence passed last week on a highly dangerous paedophile for the abduction and sexual assault of a three-year-old girl allowed for the man's release after five years of a "life sentence" of 18 years. In fact Judge John Griffith Williams made it clear that Craig Sweeney "should only be released when there is no risk of him reoffending".
But the mathematics of the Government's own sentencing guidelines are clear. Although Judge Williams declared that the crime merited an 18-year stretch, under the 2003 Criminal Justice Act Sweeney would be entitled to parole after serving half his sentence. That makes nine years. Take away a further three years - the same Act insists judges reduce sentences by a third if a defendant pleads guilty - and a further year off for time spent on remand, and you arrive at the "five-year" sentence that has convulsed the body politic.
It was profoundly cynical of John Reid, the Home Secretary of the month, to blame Judge Williams for following the mandatory guidelines set by this Government. But that at least was openly opportunist. Not so the disgusting deviousness of New Labour's backroom boys who simultaneously sent to The Sun a list of all the judges who have been "soft on criminals". No criminal has ever been as shameless as this Government in providing a false alibi.
Yet Tony Blair was right when he accused the Conservatives of having a criminal record. It was the party of law and order that, when in Government, passed legislation making it compulsory to release prisoners after half their sentence, if the original tariff was four years or less. And even for serious crimes that carry a sentence of over four years, the Tories made release mandatory after two-thirds of the sentence.
It's crucial to realise that these stipulations allow the parole board no discretion: they are executive orders which make no reference to the conduct of the criminal while in prison. So when the former prison governor David Wilson told the BBC yesterday that the current system was an essential incentive to good behaviour by prisoners, he was speaking as if early release was still something that always needed to be earned.
When Mr Wilson went on to warn of the danger of riots if prisoners were obliged to serve the sentences originally passed, he was faithfully echoing the original reason why the Home Office introduced compulsory early release during the first Thatcher administration: I remember being told by a member of that Home Office team that it was fear of riots in overcrowded prisons that lay behind the change.
It's important to understand what this does and doesn't mean. It does not mean sentences have been reduced because that will help to rehabilitate prisoners. It does not mean sentences have been reduced because that will be a benefit to the public at large. It does mean the Home Office is so intimidated by the violent criminals in its own charge that it wants the public to absorb the risks it is not prepared to take.
For a long time I used to ask Home Office ministers whether the original sentences judges impose on convicted criminals are influenced by such considerations. …