January 19, 2009 8:24 pm

Resurrection poses risk for party

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The political resurrection of Ken Clarke represents a big gamble for David Cameron, as well as a significant shift in the balance of power at the top of the Tory party.

The Tory leader on Monday hailed the return of a “very big figure” to his frontbench team, boasting that the former chancellor had “more experience of dealing with tough economic challenges than Gordon Brown’s entire cabinet”.

Mr Clarke’s extensive career in government – including the health, education and home secretary jobs – is an important counter-weight to the relative lack of experience of the shadow cabinet team. His enduring appeal to voters, who warm to his cigar-smoking, straight-talking, persona, is another crucial factor in his return to the frontbench for the first time since 1997. The Tory team is short on recognisable faces, outside the “David and George” show of the leader and shadow chancellor.

But there are significant potential problems for Mr Cameron inherent in Mr Clarke’s return, reflected in Mr Brown’s mischievous reaction.

“It’s good to have someone in shadow cabinet who is supportive of our policy on Europe, supportive of our policy on VAT and probably quietly supportive on many of our other policies,” the prime minister told a press conference.

Michael Portillo, the Tory former cabinet minister, agreed Mr Cameron was brave to appoint someone with markedly different views on many policies. “There’s no doubt that this is a big risk,” he stated.

Part of that risk stems from the degree of political discipline Mr Cameron will be able to exert over someone who, at 68, will be immune to the carrot-and-stick of promotion and demotion.

The former chancellor has a track record of being willing to criticise the party leader in blunt terms. In 2006, for example, he criticised Mr Cameron’s plans to replace the Human Rights Act as “xenophobic”.

The issue where such ideological clashes will most obviously come into play is Europe. Mr Clarke’s europhile views – seen as the root cause of the party’s rejection of his three bids to be its leader – are diametrically at odds with his new shadow cabinet colleagues. Mr Clarke on Monday agreed he would “not oppose the direction David [Cameron] will set on European policies in the future,” while not renouncing his own opinions.

But it remained unclear how this uneasy compromise will fit with the doctrine of collective shadow cabinet responsibility, once the Lisbon treaty becomes a live issue again.

Mr Cameron’s castigation of the treaty and condemnation of the government’s refusal to hold a referendum sits uneasily, to say the least, with the views of his new shadow business secretary. Only last year, Mr Clarke asserted: “a Conservative government would have been very pleased to have negotiated this treaty and it would not have contemplated a referendum on it.”

The former chancellor has also been at odds with the party leader over economic issues, not least in supporting the principle underlying the government’s cut to value added tax.

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