Ken Clarke: The press is now more powerful than parliament

The press has altered the culture of British politics and made Britain more authoritarian, Ken Clarke said today.

In a characteristically colourful performance at the Leveson inquiry, the justice secretary said the press had become too powerful even though it was not actually in governments' interests to submit to them.

"The power of the press is far greater than that of parliament," he said.

"They can certainly drive a weak government like a flock of sheep before them sometimes.

"You make stupid decisions in government and they turn on you in the end."

Mr Clarke said the power of tabloid newspapers had changed British political life – not least when Alastair Campbell entered Downing Street as head of communications for New Labour.

"We're now in celebrity culture and celebrity culture has as one of its branches the government," he said.

The tabloid's obsession with law and order had even seen prison populations double while crime was falling, he argued.

"If the tone of the newspapers was different over the last 15 years we'd probably have 20,000 fewer people in prison," he said.

"Newspapers present a frenzied version of what they believe to be the opinion of their readers. The moment you doubt it they hold an unscientific opinion poll."

The justice secretary dismissed claims that the Sun wielded the political influence so often attributed to it.

Rupert Murdoch "changes sides when it's obvious the horse they are riding on is about to collapse," he said.

"I cannot understand the excitement that has been demonstrated throughout the years with the Sun newspaper. Gordon [Brown] was obsessed with whether the Sun newspaper would endorse him and he was meant to be running the country."

Mr Clarke testimony to the inquiry comes a day before Jeremy Hunt, whose job hangs in the balance depending on how he answers questions from counsel Robert Jay.