I feel slightly queasy embarking on a post defending a Tory cabinet minister (let alone one of the Thatcher vintage), but here goes anyway. Having finally heard the relevant extract from Ken Clarke's now-notorious radio interview, it's quite clear that his mouth did run away with him, and he ultimately said something extremely stupid. But a fair amount of the blame for a train-wreck of an interview must lie with Victoria Derbyshire, who by the sounds of things fancies herself as the Paxman of Radio Five Live, and who barely gave Clarke the space to complete a word, let alone a sentence. In his losing battle to quell Ms Derbyshire's sneers, he blurted out in mangled form a couple of points - one of which was outrageous and I trust he didn't mean, but the other of which actually had a degree of validity, however poorly expressed. The latter was his reference to a scenario where two teenagers very close in age have consensual sex, but this is defined as rape because one of the two is just over the age of consent, and the other is just below it. Clarke's mistake was to imply that such cases are 'less serious rape', whereas what he should have been querying is whether they should really be treated as rape at all. Apart from anything else (and to return to a topic I've touched on in the past), it's hard to imagine that many seventeen-year-old girls are ever charged with rape for having consensual sex with boys who are just short of their sixteenth birthday, and yet the principle is absolutely identical.
Where Clarke said something reprehensible and didn't simply mis-speak was in his implication that date-rape is not "serious rape". But, even so, bearing in mind that this was a garbled, poorly-thought-through comment in the context of an absurdly belligerent interview, the fact that Ed Miliband immediately piled in and demanded Clarke's instant resignation tells you everything you need to know about what is wrong with our politics. And if that wasn't enough, we then had Labour MP Bridget Phillipson on Channel 4 News declaring that Clarke's modest efforts to reorient the criminal justice system towards rehabilitation and the reduction of reoffending meant that he was 'on the side of rapists and violent criminals'. Given that those words were clearly pre-planned and carefully considered, in many ways I regard them as far more offensive than the stupid things Clarke found himself saying under pressure.