14 Jul 2014

Ken Clarke may be dispensable – but don’t expect him to go quietly

I saw a Tory MP near the Commons terrace a little earlier manoeuvring his mobile phone around like a toy plane trying to make sure he got enough bars for good signal should the call come. On the basis of his gender and voting record, I probably should’ve intervened to save him battery but it seemed heartless.

Ken Clarke always told friends that when he leaves, it won’t be voluntary. He’s loved having a ringside seat on the first peacetime coalition in decades, loved wading in whenever he felt it worthwhile (or simply fun). In recent weeks he’s known the show is over and pushed the enevelope, wading in on home affairs cabinet committee on areas like fixed sentences and alcohol driving.

In the econony’s darkest days, No. 11 feared he might strike a discordant note and carried more popular appeal than the chancellor. More recently, the PM told aides he was going to sack him but couldn’t quite face it in the room. Now he is judged dispensable, but don’t expect him to go silent. He was baffled if not horrified by the Cameron tactics over Juncker. He has as many strong opinions as you have time to listen for, and now he has time a plenty to share them.

There will be other cabinet casualties: David Jones already known, perhaps Andrew Lansley, Sir George Young (probably not technically a “casualty” but more a “happy evacuee”) and David Willetts. I’m told the left/right balance is not disturbed, despite the strong rumour that Liam Fox is on his way back into government after three years on the backbenches and that Ken Clarke has left. The former, I am told, never allowed the word “coalition” to be used in official documents while he was defence secretary. The latter was dubbed “my sixth cabinet minister” by Nick Clegg.

Britain's Minister without Portfolio Kenneth Clarke arrives at Downing Street in London

Quite a few ministers in the middle and junior ranks are putting out statements that they’ve spontaneously decided now would be a good moment to stand down. No doubt some of them could survive a polygraph test but I suspect not all.

We’ll find out more about who replaces them soon, but David Cameron has clearly decided to try to honour as closely as he can his pledge to give about a third of governnment jobs to women. Some male Tory MPs are grumbling to each other about that tonight… and to anyone else who’ll listen.

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