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Why Ken Clarke should be made Leader of the House

by Paul Goodman

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David Cameron is brilliant about reshuffles.  That's to say, he doesn't believe in them, partly because he grasped long ago that they cause more pain than gain: the gratitude of those who are promoted is always outweighed by the resentment of those who aren't (let alone the anger of those who are sacked).  More importantly, he thought in Opposition that his front bench should be allowed to bed down, gain expertise and prepare for Government.  In his last pre-election shuffle, he fired only one of its members.  Coalition meant that he had to move more people than he otherwise would have done, but Damian Green, Nick Gibb, Tim Loughton, Anne Milton, and Greg Barker are living evidence of his belief in continuity.

In Opposition, Cameron indicated that he wanted to avoid a post-election reshuffle for two years.  Like trying to rely on the civil service alone to govern, this is one of the pre-poll illusions that will doubtless be ditched, probably after May's elections.  None the less, the Prime Minister will want to keep the Government as intact as possible.  This is right, for the reasons I've already outlined, and it's doubly right at Cabinet level.  Dismissing senior Ministers risks establishing rival power bases, stirring media flurries best avoided, and destablising a Government which, by its very Coalition nature, is already fiendishly hard to manage.  However, there's one case in which doing something can scarcely be worse than doing nothing.

Within the last months, two sets of polling have shown that the Government is out of step with voters on law and order: first, Lord Ashcroft's polling for the Sunday Telegraph, also written up on this site, and then a separate set in the Times.  Their findings were much the same.  Headline points from the first were: three times as many voters think tougher sentences rather than more police officers should be the top  priority; 25 times as many people think sentences are too lenient as think they are too harsh, and voters want longer, tougher sentences.  There is nothing in the Coalition Agreement to contradict this view.  It speaks of protecting the public and punishing offenders in the same breath as deterring crime and cutting reoffending.

There is nothing, repeat nothing, in it about cutting prison numbers.  So if there's a problem with the Government's prisons policy, don't blame the Liberal Democrats, but look closer to home.  Ken Clarke believes that the rise in prison population since 1993, begun by Michael Howard, has nothing much to do with the fall in crime since.  This view drives his plan to reduce the number of people in prison.  It's a belief that carries with it the biggest single present political risk to the Conservative Party in government.  Crime and punishment isn't some relatively footling matter.  It's part of the meat, potatoes and two veg quartet that makes up the staple diet of British politics: the economy, schools, hospitals - and crime.

If the Party's seen to go soft on law and order, the perception will hugely exacerbate the problems David Cameron already has with aspirational voters - the strivers, battlers, breadwinners, poundstretchers, Sid's Heirs, C1 and C2s, or whatever you want to call them.  Thatcher was on the same psychic wavelength as these voters.  David Cameron simply isn't, which wouldn't be a problem if some other top figure in his team was - but none is. (George Osborne grasps the difficulty intellectually, though not emotionally.)  When a Minister's quoted as saying that Britain's responsible for many of the world's problems, or that people from Sheffield shouldn't fly abroad on cheap holidays, it risks branding Ministers permanently as out-of-touch.

Sorting the Ken Clarke problem would be the single most effective means of tackling this hostage to fortune.  Sacking him would stir up both the media and the Liberal Democrats: it's best to avoid either if possible.  And on balance, it's an advantage to have his experience, weight and economic credibility in Cabinet, providing his portfolio has nothing to do with crime or Europe (that the Justice brief is integral to the Government's response to the ECHR on votes-for-prisoners offers yet another reason to move him).  My solution?  Offer him the leadership of the Commons - a post often been occupied by senior figures nearer the end of their career than the start.

Clarke likes the House, is unknockdownable in it, and would manage Government Commons business with the shrewdness and unflappability of someone who's seen it all before.  He'd also be very useful to have around when the inevitable struggle comes over that bad idea, Lords reform - and, as the man in charge of the Party's Democracy Task Force, he's also run his mind recently over how the Commons should work.  Leading the House would also leave him free to be drafted in for supporting fire on the economy when required.  George Young, the present incumbrent, has had a marvellous run in government with the Party, and would be sensible and loyal enough not to mind too much about leaving the Cabinet. 

Who to replace Clarke?  Have a look at Jonathan's rigorous assessment of non-Cabinet Ministers, but the front runners should probably be Nick Herbert, who did the Justice portfolio in opposition and has strong views about the human rights culture, and Chris Grayling, who has top-flight Shadow Cabinet experience, is managing the work programme deftly, and holds no-nonsense views on prisons.  Sure, Clarke might always turn the Leadership of the House down.  But that would be his problem, not Cameron's.  The Prime Minister would be able to say that he'd offered Clarke a very senior portfolio.  Making this single Cabinet change would sort a problem and send a signal.


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