SENIOR Liberal Democrats have accused Tories of trying to exploit the death of teacher Ann Maguire for political gain ahead of this month’s elections amid a growing divide in the coalition Government over knife crime.
Downing Street flatly rejected any suggestion Tories were using the killing of the Leeds teacher to gain more votes following reports that Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is blocking a proposal from Conservative Justice Secretary Chris Grayling for automatic prison sentences for offenders caught twice with a knife.
Mr Clegg refused to allow discussion of the idea at a meeting this week of the Cabinet home affairs committee, which he chairs.
Details of letters emerged yesterday which also showed Lib Dem Treasury Minister Danny Alexander was opposing the policy on cost grounds, while the party’s Schools Minister, David Laws, warned mandatory minimum sentences were “too blunt an instrument”.
The rift became public amid an atmosphere of heightened concern over knife crime following the fatal stabbing of Mrs Maguire at Corpus Christi Catholic College – and on the day David Cameron launched the Tories’ election campaign.
The issue came into even sharper focus when it emerged two teenage girls had been arrested on suspicion of planning to murder a teacher in South Wales.
Gwent Police said the girls, 14 and 15, were arrested at Cwmcarn High School in South Wales on Thursday with the 15-year-old girl arrested on suspicion of threats to kill, possession of a “bladed article” on school premises and conspiracy to commit murder. Both girls have since been released on bail and no one was harmed.
Commenting on the political row, a senior Liberal Democrat source said: “Those people who have leaked this correspondence out of context and those seeking to exploit it on a party basis in such a tragic week will have to examine their own conscience.”
The source described the Tories’ policy as a “tough-sounding gimmick” that could turn youngsters into hardened criminals and actually increase crime.
“Whilst minimum sentencing might sound attractive in media headlines, there is a serious risk it could undermine the role of the judges who are best placed to decide on sentencing by virtue of their role,” said the source.
But the Prime Minister’s official spokesman rejected suggestions Mrs Maguire’s killing was being exploited and Mr Cameron later insisted coalition government should not prevent a “robust” battle for votes between the parties.
“We are in coalition government and we have shown in coalition government that we can work together to deliver the plan that Britain needs,” he said. “But when it comes to local elections and European elections, you can have a very robust fight.”
He added: “On this particular issue, we have toughened the rules on knife crime. We should continue to look at that and I’m sure we’ll reach a good outcome on that issue.”
Mr Grayling wants mandatory jail sentences through an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, which returns to the Commons on May 12.
A senior Lib Dem source said the Tories’ idea had not been discussed at the Cabinet home affairs committee because it had not been on the agenda and could be discussed in future if it was. The party claimed the support of Tory Cabinet Minister Ken Clarke – Mr Grayling’s predecessor as Justice Secretary – for its opposition to the move.