Ken Clarke was brought back into David Cameron’s Shadow Cabinet for a solid reason. The Conservative leadership looked lightweight on the economy, and Cameron was worried that he might lose the 2010 election in consequence. Clarke was thus appointed Shadow Business Secretary to shadow another recently-returned political heavyweight, Peter Mandelson – and was poised to take over from him in the event of a Tory majority.
As it turned out, Cameron didn’t win the election, but didn’t lose it either. A consequence of coalition was that Vince Cable went to the Business department, and Clarke to Justice – where he settled quickly with George Osborne on reducing the rate of growth in his department’s spending (as a former Chancellor, he knew the ropes), cut at the costs of legal aid, and began the rehabilitation drive that Chris Grayling has continued. He also rowed with Theresa May about a cat, described ConservativeHome as a “blasted website” and repeatedly skied off-piste about Europe.
The Prime Minister has reportedly had enough of Clarke turning up on Today and foxily dissenting from the official line. Perhaps more to the point, so has Lynton Crosby – who recently rebuked a CCHQ staffer for categorising an interview by the old boy as a “Conservative win”. When he left Justice at the last big reshuffle, Clarke should also have left the Cabinet table, if only on the ground that no fewer than 34 people are entitled to sit round it, this is far too many, and he has been left with nothing much to do. It would have done no harm to cut the Cabinet to the scarcely more practicable size of 33.
At any rate, Clarke seems to have given up on causing trouble on Today – and settled instead for doing so on the World At One, where yesterday he managed tacitly to support Jean-Claude Juncker and obliquely to criticise Dominic Grieve: I wonder how Crosby categorised that one. These naughty episodes have become so common that some may have missed that the exchanges had a valedictory air. Clarke will have followed the briefing about the coming reshuffle, and will know that if Esther McVey (say) is to enter the Cabinet through the revolving door someone else has to exit – probably him.
He will be missed, at least by some of those who sit round it with him. One told me recently that Cameron had grown impatient with him, and sometimes shuts him up (or tries to). My source thought this was a pity, and that on the subject under discussion – Iraq – Clarke was talking sense. He certainly called that one right in 2003, since he opposed Tony Blair’s plan at the time. There have been other big successes – at health, where his fundholding reforms presaged the Milburn and Lansley ones, and above all at the Treasury. He must go down as one of Britain’s most successful post-war Chancellors.
But most of us get less nimble as we grow older, and Clarke is no exception. The European cause was the great love of his youth. He has stayed faithful to it, for which he has paid the heaviest political price of all for an ambitious politician: it cost him the Conservative leadership, arguably in 1997 and certainly in 2001. His political arteries have hardened, and is curious trick of using “right-wing” as a term of criticism seems to have grown more frequent – and this from a member of a right-of-centre party.
Clarke’s take on Europe is antique – infuriatingly so, to such a degree that it is tempting to dismiss him as That Blasted Clarke. This would be unfair as well as understandable: he has done the state some service. It is customary to write praise politicians only after they have been fired. I am getting my bid in early.