22 Feb 2011

Will Cameron stand up to Tory right and back Ken Clarke?

As David Cameron comes under pressure from the Conservative right to reshuffle the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke out of Government, Gaby Hinsliff looks at the options facing the Prime Minister.

Ken Clarke - sporting injuries from a recent fall (Getty)

For someone who was never really more than half on board the Cameron project, it’s odd how central Ken Clarke is becoming to it.

After three straight days of briefing, leaks and spin over justice policy, it seems much of the Conservative right-wing has now picked Clarke as the totemic issue over which to force a showdown with the leader.

And that presents David Cameron with a test of nerve. Does he back his original judgment in sending someone who was – in Clarke’s words – “never a hanger and flogger”, to the Justice Department? Or does he swallow his pride, and yield the scalp of one of his trickier colleagues?

This probably isn’t the problem Cameron expected from Clarke. In opposition, there were dark mutterings that he was semi-detached, tired, losing interest. Yet government has re-invigorated him, as one of the few Ministers who knew from experience exactly how to make government work for him (one reason Cameron wanted him, and one good reason – alongside his undeniable charm and communication skills – for Clarke to stay).

The time is coming for him either to back Clarke unreservedly – explain and defend the case for rethinking justice policy – or rein him in.

Losing him would also signal a significant retreat on the more moderate law and order policy that has been key to Tory moderniser thinking since well before Cameron’s “hug a hoodie” moment. Philosophically, Clarke goes with the grain of the project.

There are just two snags. The first is Clarke’s incorrigible tendency to promote his own agenda: there are important differences between his views and those of the Portillo-supporting moderniser tendency from which many Cameroons are drawn – and not just over Europe. If Cameron needs a liberal on justice, there are more collegiate options.

And the second is that the right has picked a popular fight. Clarke’s defiant stance on prisoner voting and more community sentences is at odds not just with Conservative core voters but many Labour core voters – in other words, a lot of voters, as the Sun and Daily Mail have noticed. If crime rises, the wicket gets stickier still.

Cameron doubtless doesn’t want to have to choose between Ken Clarke and the Right. But the time is coming for him either to back Clarke unreservedly – explain and defend the case for rethinking justice policy – or rein him in.

Right now, it looks as if he controls neither dog in this fight.

Gaby Hinsliff is the former Political Editor of The Observer.