Can justice secretary Alex Chalk survive the prisons crisis?

Alex Chalk  (ES)
Alex Chalk (ES)

If you thought your Sunday was a sweaty one, try being Alex Chalk. A jailbreak was never going to make for a chilled week for the man in charge of the country’s prisons, but the justice secretary and MP for Cheltenham found himself facing some particularly fierce grillings as he battled his way through the weekend media rounds.

Chalk, 47 — a qualified barrister, MP since 2015 and Solicitor General from 2021 to 2022 — was appointed as justice minister and Lord Chancellor in April after various stints in the justice and defence departments. When he took over from Dominic Raab in the spring, the Law Society warned that Chalk was inheriting a “crisis” in the British justice system, with “worsening backlogs, legal aid on the point of collapse, crumbling courts and a shortage of judges and court staff”.

If Chalk hadn’t felt the full effects of those shortages then, he certainly is now. “We’ve taken 40 [prisoners] out to move elsewhere, just as we get to the bottom of what happened. Now that is a sensible, interim, precautionary step,” he told GB News during an interrogation on the escape of terror suspect Daniel Khalife from Wandsworth Prison last week. “There have been issues with crowding which I accept which goes back for not just five years, it’s 25 or 30 years, but the difference is we are doing something about it.”

Hours earlier, the father-of-three dodged Kuenssberg’s question on whether his department had received warnings from Wandsworth an astonishing four times. He acknowledged that there were problems with the prison, but said there were senior prison service staff on hand and additional governor support in place. “We are in very close contact with all of these prisons, of course we are,” he stuttered.

These weren’t the only headlines circulating after Chalk’s heated interviews on Sunday. The justice secretary also found himself tripping up on China, calling the country an “epoch defining threat” before correcting that to “challenge”, and suggested a disagreement with Hunt over benefits cuts, saying his party must be “decent and humane” and provide support for the most disadvantaged in society amid talk of ministers considering a real-terms cut to universal credit.

A source close to Chalk has subsequently added that he was not expressing an opinion on the plans, which are a “matter for the Chancellor”, but the comment has lead to speculation of a Cabinet split between him and Chancellor Hunt. So who exactly is the man at the centre of this week’s political storm? Is there actually a rift between him and Hunt’s side of the party? And how long will he survive in a role that has seen a turnover of 11 justice secretaries in 13 years?

Justice Secretary Alex Chalk (PA Wire)
Justice Secretary Alex Chalk (PA Wire)

An Old Wykehamist barrister with bright ideas

Boarding school at Winchester College — Rishi Sunak’s alma mater (Chalk is four years Sunak’s elder, so they would have overlapped at the school). A modern history degree at Magdalen College, Oxford, before a law diploma at City University in London. A side-step into politics in 2006 before climbing up the Tory ranks.

Chalk’s upbringing reads like your classic Tory CV, in many ways. He was born in London but raised in Foxcote near Cheltenham before moving to boarding school at Winchester College, one of the country’s leading independent schools which counts MPs including Sunak, Marcus Fysh and John Whittingdale among its alumni and claims to prepare boys for a future of “compassionate leadership” and a “keenness to contribute to the community”.

He moved back to the capital after studying at Oxford, working as a barrister for 16 years. Later, he returned to Cheltenham to run as MP in the 2015 general election, when he saw off the Liberal Democrats’ Martin Horwood to achieve a swing of over 10 per cent — a first for a Tory candidate in the constituency for 23 years. He held his seat in the 2017 general election and again in 2019, was appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) for the Department of Education in 2018 and then PPS for the health and social care secretary later that year.

The following year he became PPS to then-defence secretary Penny Mordaunt and in 2020 he became Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Justice. Highlights during that time included taking a bill through Parliament that spares divorcing couples form having to apportion blame for their marriage breakdown; announcing measures to protect young people who fall victim to sexual predators working as sports coaches and faith leaders; and progressing the Domestic Abuse Bill through the Commons, which included a new definition that takes in a range of abuses beyond physical violence, such as coercive control.

In March 2021 he was temporarily appointed as Prisons and Probations Minister and he became Her Majesty’s Solicitor-General for England and Wales later that year, one of his legacies being seeking to ensure that criminals receive custodial sentences that appropriately reflect the nature of their crimes.

He resigned as part of a mass resignation the following year, in July 2022, citing the Owen Paterson crisis, Partygate and the Chris Pincher scandal, before a brief six-month stint as Minister of State in the Ministry of Defence until April this year.

Cycling, skateboarding and mimicking John Bercow

“Pretty vanilla”. That’s how Chalk described himself during an interview with Gloucestershire Live four years into his role as MP for Cheltenham in 2019.

The married father-of-three and Remain voter is certainly on the reserved side when it comes to talking about his personal life but there are various details he has chosen to share over the years: he plays the electro acoustic guitar; he enjoys mimicking the well-known voice of former House of Commons speaker John Bercow; and he cycles into work, taking the train into Paddington from Cheltenham every week before pedalling into Parliament. He fractured his arm while doing so last year, crashing his bike while cycling along Birdcage Walk in Westminster in February 2022, but returned to two wheels as soon as he could, saying he enjoys the exercise and environmental benefits of the sport.

Chalk set up an Instagram account in February 2019, the year he started as an MP, and while it is largely politics-focused (his followers include Sunak and Carrie and Boris Johnson), it does offer a small but insightful window into his personal life: days out at Cheltenham parkrun, the local lido and charity bike rides; family holidays to Norfolk and the Cotswolds; trips to Cyprus and the Falklands from his time with the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme, which aims to educate Commons members in military matters.

His wife Sarah prefers to stay out of the limelight but Chalk’s son and two daughters feature regularly on his account, whether it’s new baby announcements, photos of sledging trips or messing around on his nephew’s skateboard. The family dog, a golden retriever or labrador, is also a key feature on the grid.

Chalk once said that it might sound clichéd or old fashioned but that the main reason he wanted to be an MP was so he can make a material difference to people’s lives, citing social mobility as the biggest reason he entered politics.

In 2019 he hit back at criticism for missing a parliamentary climate change debate in favour of a “crucial and time-sensitive” meeting to discuss health services in Cheltenham. He said he regarded climate change to be one of the three most serious challenges facing the UK alongside terrorism and antibiotic resistance, and noting that he took steps to reduce his own personal carbon footprint, travelling to the majority of his Cheltenham engagements by bike.

The 11th justice secretary in 13 years — how long will he survive?

Chalk became the 11th Conservative justice secretary in 13 years when he succeeded Dominic Raab in April, also becoming the first ever Cheltenham MP to attend Cabinet.

He was seen as a rising star of his party at the time; a centrist Tory with noble ambitions who wanted to protect rape victims, reduce court backlogs and strengthen community punishments so that “the guilty are convicted, the innocent walk free and the public are protected”.

That statement might seem a little tainted now, following the Daniel Khalife saga. But Chalk has insisted his government is working hard to make working in the prison service an attractive profession to boost staffing numbers and says his department is investigating why Khalife was being held at the less secure Category B facility when most terror suspects are held in HMP Belmarsh, a Category A prison.

Some critics have called him “another Tory mouthpiece” and blamed his party’s “outrageous” ministerial churn for Britain’s struggling prisons, while others say he’s a sensible centrist Tory who shows rare “handsome manners” during debates. Commentators described his performance in the Commons last week as classy, highlighting the moment he politely asked rival MPs to stop scaremongering and calmly promised to find Khalife, who was later arrested in Chiswick.

“His purring civility disarmed the house,” wrote one right-wing critic. Could Chalk’s classier approach signal a move towards a calmer, more polite chapter in politics?

Others have praised the fact that Chalk is clearly not afraid to put his head above the parapet for causes he believes in. He called serial baby killer Lucy Letby a “coward” for refusing to attend court last month, vowing to change the law to make sure serious offenders stand in the dock for their sentencing, and this week he said the Government must do everything it can for “the most disadvantaged in society” amid reports that Hunt is considering real-terms cuts to benefits.

Britain's new Justice Secretary Alex Chalk leaves Number 10 Downing Street in London on April 21, 2023 (AFP via Getty Images)
Britain's new Justice Secretary Alex Chalk leaves Number 10 Downing Street in London on April 21, 2023 (AFP via Getty Images)

“We want to ensure, I will want to ensure, my colleagues will want to ensure, that we are decent, humane and we want to support people,” he told Sky’s Trevor Phillips on Sunday morning, fuelling speculation of a rift within Sunak’s cabinet. So will Chalk’s kinder, classier approach to politics come out on top or will this week’s prisons saga be the downfall of the Tories’ latest rising star?

With just over a year until the next general election, the next few months are likely to be the real teller for the man at the centre of this week’s political firestorm. The temperatures might be cooling around the rest of the country, but for Chalk and his colleagues in Westminster the mercury is only set to climb.