Tension has built to its combustion point, but there is no apparent reason why May chose this moment. Perhaps she was inspired by the persistent rumours of Cameron’s displeasure with Clarke? Or maybe the cause was Michael Howard’s smirking syntax as he denounced Clarke’s ‘flawed ideology’ in yesterday’s Times? Either way, the campaign to move Clarke sideways in a Christmas reshuffle is gaining momentum. The usual suspects from the right of the parliamentary party have been joined by a media coalition incorporating both the authoritarian tabloids and cerebral moderates such as Matthew d’Ancona.
It is unclear where policy ends and personality begins in this fight. Clarke’s Green Paper is commendable. Sentencing reform on first time prisoners and murder is urgently required and has been since Lord Woolf’s 2005 review. Crime has fallen and benighted communities have benefited, but there is no hiding re-offending rates or the fact that investment in rehabilitation did not keep pace with burgeoning prison numbers. Prison works, but not as well as it might. Clarke is absurd to deny the correlation between prison places and reduced crime, but the wider debate is being obscured by a now historical personality clash. Clarke’s warbling insouciance and determined laziness have always infuriated colleagues, whilst his virulent Europhilia and role in the matricide of Margaret Thatcher cast a long and soot-black shadow.
Does the government need Ken Clarke, and at Justice? The first part is explained by Michael White: the government need Ken Bloke’s easy charm with the electorate, the same applies for Vince Cable. Daniel Finkelstein (£) inadvertently answers the second part without mentioning Clarke. The Tories cannot afford the Lib Dems to claim the credit for this radical government’s rare moments of liberal moderation. The often over-hyped Tory brand argument is pertinent here. Prison reform carries no real political danger because Labour’s support is near unqualified. Theoretically, a Lib Dem like David Laws could enact the reforms, but the belligerently affable Clarke is the only Conservative who could; in fact, as No.10 sources are keen to emphasise, it is his policy and his alone.