Sunday, January 18, 2009

Return of the Beast!

Well, well. It looks as if Ken Clarke is back after all. I have been sceptical about whether he should be brought back into a shadow cabinet role, but David Cameron has decided to emulate Gordon Brown and bring back a big hitter from the past with whom he has some notable disagreements. According to the reports up on the news sites and blogs this evening, Clarke will take on the shadow Business Secretary role, shadowing Brown's own returnee, Peter Mandelson.

This will be the biggest political story tomorrow. Clarke consistently makes headlines, and ones that usually give him a great deal of credibility. When he announced his candidacy in the last leadership election the publicity pushed all the other candidates into the twilight zone of the media, to the sniffy annoyance of one D. Cameron, whose team remarked that it wasn't really fair, since all Ken Clarke had to do was get up in the morning to generate headlines. It seems Cameron wants some of that positive PR to be used officially for the party now.

Clarke is the Tories' lost leader. That their fortunes would have been different over the past decade if he had won any of the three leadership elections he fought is undeniable. But how well he will perform in a subsidiary role now is another matter, to say nothing of his own business interests, notably on the board of British American Tobacco. The only time, in fact, that I've seen CLarke genuinely discomfited was during a student politics conference when he was challenged by a questioner about the activities of BAT. And, of course, the Conservative right-wingers don't like him. Conservative Home - the unofficial voice of Tory grassroots opinion - opposed his possible return, and the comments on their page this evening suggest a less than overwhelming response to his new posting. Commenters generally fall into the category of "this is a big mistake" or "we're suspicious of him but we acknowledge he's a big hitter".

For now, Cameron can guarantee some good headlines tomorrow, and he has at least put someone opposite Mandelson who is capable of challenging him. Clarke should add lustre to the front-bench team (and it was apparently George Osborne who pushed the idea, with the deal being sealed at Osborne's house over lunch on Saturday), but I would be surprised if there wasn't also considerable nervousness at Tory HQ about a man who is notoriously unspinnable, and impervious to the idea of a party line. Whatever else he's done, Cameron's just made British politics a mite more unpredictable and enjoyable.

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