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Ken Clarke: big beast from the Cambridge mafia

By Anna Doble

Updated on 30 June 2010

Ken Clarke has set out radical plans to cut prisoner numbers - the reverse of Michael Howard's "prison works" approach of the 1990s. As Who Knows Who explains it is not the first time the pair have been opposed.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke arrives at Downing Street. (Credit: Getty)

The oldest member of David Cameron's coalition cabinet, Ken Clarke is about to celebrate his 70th birthday (2 July) but the justice secretary is by no means an old-fashioned Conservative.

Ken Clarke: click here for his Who Knows Who power map

He is renowned for his laid-back (some say scruffy) personal style, his Hush Puppies, his love of jazz, his cigars and for birdwatching. His consistently pro-Europe stance has sometimes left him isolated within the Tory party. He also opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Clarke has come agonisingly close to leading his party on three occasions - in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke sets out prison reforms:
- UK prisons 'costly and ineffectual', says Clarke
- Simon Israel: rehabilitation revolution - but at what cost?
- Martin Narey: 'If we had fewer people in prison, prison could work'
- Tory prison policy, from 'prison works' to 'rehabilitation revolution'
- Frances Crook: 'This is chequebook politics - but that's fine'

Now revered as a political "big beast" it was the victor in 2005 (Cameron) who brought the former chancellor back onto the political frontline, as shadow business secretary. The prime minister then made Clarke justice secretary and lord chancellor after the general election.

Clarke (like Ed Balls) is a former Nottingham High School boy. He went on to study at Cambridge (the same college as Alastair Campbell, Gonville and Caius) and despite a grandfather who was in the Communist party Clarke became president of the union, a post later held by Norman Lamont (whom Clarke followed as chancellor) and US political commentator Arianna Huffington.

As a student Clarke was said to be one of the "Cambridge mafia" of the 1960s which produced a clutch of men who would later become key figures in the Tory party. Clarke followed closely in the footsteps of Sir Leon Brittan who was also a union president and a rising star in the early days of Thatcherism. Clarke met his wife Gill at Cambridge.

Clarke was also chairman of the Cambridge University Conservative Association and it was in this role he caused controversy when he invited former British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley (whose son Max became boss of motor racing body the FIA) to give a speech.

Several Jewish students quit the society in protest, including Michael Howard who layer served as Conservative home secretary and party leader and whose "prison works" philosophy has now been directly contradicted by Clarke.

After graduation, Clarke's legal spurs were quickly earned when he was called to the Bar by Gray's Inn but politics was calling and by 1970 (at the tender age of 29) he was an MP, for Rushcliffe, Nottinghamshire, a seat he holds to this day.

David Cameron is the fourth Conservative prime minister Clarke has served under after high-profile stints with Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

But Clarke is a famous Europhile which has often put him at odds his party. He leads the so-called "ginger group" (an informal gang of MPs within a political party) of pro-Europe Tories. He is again a cabinet colleague of his Tory arch-rival Iain Duncan Smith, the Eurosceptic who pipped him to the Tory leadership in 2001.

Clarke's business connections have sometimes attracted criticism. He quit his controversial post as a non-executive director of British American Tobacco in 2008. He remains on the board of The Independent newspaper and is known to have attended conventions held by the Bilderberg group of high profile world figures in finance.

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