David Maddox: Scots Tories' hard line on crime cuts no ice with Cameron's fluffy vision

WHEN Gordon Banks, the Labour MP for Ochil and South Perthshire, rose to his feet during Prime Minister's questions yesterday there was more than a hint of a smile on his face.

"Who is right on short-term prison sentences," he asked. "The Justice Secretary (Ken Clarke] or the leader of your party in the Scottish Parliament (Annabel Goldie]?"

As football parlance is in vogue at the moment, it was the sort of open goal David Cameron had been accusing Labour of leaving open in exchanges on the economy.

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Mr Clarke has made it clear he wants to reduce short-term sentences of less than six months and replace them with tougher community sentences.

"The problem is that the public have lost confidence in community sentences," the Prime Minister noted in response to Mr Banks.

But wait, doesn't that sound familiar? Well yes, because both Mr Clarke's and Mr Cameron's words are exactly what SNP Justice Secretary Kenny MacASkill has been saying for the last three years.

Ms Goldie's response to Mr MacAskill was to accuse him of creating a "soft touch Scotland" and yesterday she led her MSPs in voting against short sentences being reduced.

There is little doubt then that there is a divide between the Tories now in the approach to crime north and south of the Border, for now at least.

After the humiliating one seat taken by the Tories in Scotland, it is perhaps not surprising Mr Cameron is not too concerned about embarrassing the Scottish party leader.

However, law and order has been a crucial part of the Scottish Tory strategy and it has carved itself an important niche in this part of the politics north of the Border. Their justice spokesman, Bill Aitken, convener of Holyrood's justice committee who is about to retire as an MSP has been the go-to figure for tougher action against crime. But in recent times they have come under pressure from Labour and its justice spokesman Richard Baker who have tried to take an even tougher line.

So the intervention by Messrs Clarke and Cameron yesterday may not be entirely welcome in the Scottish party. However, with a review going on over why it failed in the election in Scotland maybe the new English policy is a sign of things to come to make the Scottish Tories more fluffy and electorally acceptable.