The government's attempt to put a week of mishaps behind it with a David Cameron speech on crime and justice looks set to run into trouble because there will be no additional money to back up his call for tougher sentencing and more rehabilitation.
The prime minister's speech on Monday was being billed as "tough, but intelligent" and in extracts released to the media Cameron says the coalition government wants to take "bold, unprecedented action".
Among the key points will be a pledge that "the primary, proper response to crime … is punishment – proportionate, meaningful punishment", but the prime minister will also argue that "prevention is the cheapest and most effective way to deal with crime".
To back this up, the prime minister will announce opening up of rehabilitation services to private companies and charities, who will be paid by results, extending a few pilot projects so that the system becomes the norm by the next general election in 2015. He will also say that prisoners sentenced to less than one year in prison, who currently are not covered by rehabilitation, would be in future be eligible – a potentially huge extension of the programme.
The speech in central London to professionals working in the justice system is seen as an opportunity for the prime minister to move on from a week in which he was humiliated by the resignation of Andrew Mitchell after he had backed the chief whip to stay in his job following an admission he swore at police; botched an announcement of a new energy policy; and saw his chancellor, George Osborne, involved in a dispute about travelling on a train first class without a valid ticket.
Opponents have been quick to claim that the prime minister's announcements were old policies, and that his change of direction was missing elements essential to success, such as more work with drug and alcohol addiction, mental health and homelessness.
Aides also admitted there would be no additional money to pay for either more prisoners – who each cost the state on average £40,000 a year – or for extending rehabilitation to more offenders, as the prime minister will promise. Instead, in a move likely to dismay all sides, Cameron was spelling out what was billed as "more long-term vision stuff", they said.
The PM's vulnerability was seized on by Labour, whose shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan put out a statement on Monday saying: "After 29 months, this Tory-led government's justice policy is in tatters. Today's announcement, which includes little that is new, is not about what works to keep communities safe. Instead, this is empty rhetoric from a weak prime minister who is pandering to the backbenchers that forced out Andrew Mitchell."
Juliet Lyons, director of the Prison Reform Trust charity, said the government needed to look beyond policing and justice to issues such as drug and alcohol addiction, mental health, homelessness and unemployment – a strategy that has successfully reduced youth crime in recent years.
Lyons also warned that both extending probation and tougher sentencing would cost more, at least in the short term.
"You twist the dial [of rhetoric] a little bit then suddenly sentences get that bit harsher, somebody on the cusp goes into prison, and before you know it you have got an economic and social disaster on your hands," she said.
"You need to know you can afford it, you can deliver on it and it will work, rather than create a headline."
The speech follows another day of intense focus on the resignation of Mitchell, who is said to have quit after realising he did not have the support of Conservative MPs, especially many of the 2010 intake who make up nearly half the parliamentary party and have proven to be unusually independent. Three of that group spearheaded Cameron's biggest blow when they organised an unprecedented rebellion over plans to reform the House of Lords earlier this summer.
Speculation that the prime minister came under pressure from within his own cabinet to sack his chief whip increased when the home secretary, Theresa May, tried to duck questions about her reported advice to the PM to oust Mitchell.
She told the BBC's Sunday Politics show: "I'm not going to talk about private conversations. Andrew has now resigned. I think that's an end of the issue."
In signs of a cabinet split, Cameron's embarrassment over the affair was further deepened by Michael Gove, the education secretary, who insisted they had both been keen for Mitchell to stay on. "David Cameron wanted to keep Andrew. I wanted Andrew to stay because I don't believe and the prime minister doesn't believe that 30 years of public service should be effaced at a stroke by seven seconds of unacceptable but very human exasperation," Gove told Sky's Murnaghan programme.
The latest interventions came after Lord Tebbit led a wave of concern and anger from within the party about Downing Street's handling of the affair, in which Mitchell has admitted losing his temper with police at the gates to Downing Street and swearing at them. Mitchell however has denied that he called the officers "plebs" and told them to "know their place", as claimed in the police report.
Writing in the Observer, Tebbit said: "This dog of a coalition government has let itself be given a bad name and now anybody can beat it … The abiding sin of the government is not that some ministers are rich, but that it seems unable to manage its affairs competently."
Many MPs are privately dismayed that the Mitchell affair – which many argued should have been ended with a prompt resignation four weeks ago – ended up dominating what could have been a week of good news for the government in which new figures showed crime, NHS waiting lists and unemployment had all fallen in recent months. The Conservatives had also had a welcome week of relatively good press after Cameron's speech to his party conference, which had lifted spirits after a summer of bad news.
The Tory backbencher Andrew Percy, who was elected in 2010, said he had been "staggered" by Downing Street's handling of the Mitchell affair and accused No 10 of failing to take on board the views of its more independently minded MPs.
"A lot of the problems we are facing at the moment are not problems about the economy but actually it's stuff we have made ourselves. The disasters or shambles are created wholly within Westminster or within Downing Street," he told BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend.
"This is a question to be asked about the whole Downing Street operation. I do feel that the Downing Street machine is too narrow. I don't feel we backbenchers are involved enough."
He said Downing Street would "have to respond" to the strength of feeling on the backbenches, warning: "There is only so much backbenchers will take."
However Gove, a former Times writer and news editor, dismissed the week's negative stories as "froth". Downing Street also pointed out that government announcements led the news for three days last week: the referendum on Scottish independence on Monday, falling unemployment on Wednesday, and the decision not to extradite computer hacker Gary McKinnon to the US on Thursday.
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