Ken Clarke leaves the cabinet, with some parting shots aimed at the government. Photo: Getty
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“We should have all-women shortlists”: Ken Clarke’s reshuffle reaction

The former chancellor and veteran Tory frontbencher Ken Clarke talks to the Today programme, following his resignation from the cabinet yesterday.

In one of the less unexpected shake-ups of David Cameron’s team – a “purge of middle-aged white men”, as the BBC’s Nick Robinson described it this morning – Ken Clarke resigned from the cabinet yesterday.

He had been serving as minister without portfolio, a downgrade in 2012 from a string of more prominent positions, such as justice secretary (his seventh cabinet post) and shadow business secretary under Cameron’s leadership, and chancellor, home secretary and health secretary in previous Conservative governments. He has been an MP continuously since 1970, also tried for the Tory leadership three times unsuccessfully.

Speaking in the 8.10 interview slot on Today this morning, Clarke discussed the European Union, the European Convention on Human Rights, straight-talking politicians and women in politics.

His most notable comment was that he is in favour of all-women shortlists for the Conservative party, which has been against such interventions so far, to get more women in at the selection stage. He said: "I would personally be in favour of all-women shortlists, we’re going too slowly, I think we should have all-women shortlists, but that’s not for me [to say]", and argued that the promotion of more women to the cabinet is "late" to happen. However, he also stated, "People getting obsessed with the gender balance in cabinet is slightly superficial".

He was also asked about his own departure from the cabinet, and admitted that the PM "might have persuaded me" to stay for another stint, which suggests that he wasn't asked by Cameron to stay. However, he praised Cameron's old-style politics of having few reshuffles, but scheduling one before an election for a cabinet that "looks like a government he wants in the next parliament."

The staunch europhile was questioned about the potentially more eurosceptic make-up of the new team, what with the incoming Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, a eurosceptic who has previously suggested we should leave the EU if substantial powers aren't returned to Britain. Clarke predictably praised the EU and said it should be a "big priority" to use it to boost jobs and growth, but criticised the political discussion's "hang-up with the European Union". He added: "If the whole thing’s about Europe, then we really have gone mad in this country... The political debate in this country has gone rather crackers and we should leave that to Nigel Farage."

However, he did voice his optimism for getting "some serious reforms" from the EU.

He was also asked about senior government ministers remaining in cabinet drifting away from supporting the European Convention on Human Rights. The Attorney General Dominic Grieve, who supported the Convention, has been reshuffled.

"I think it’s unthinkable we should leave the European Convention on Human Rights," Clarke replied. "... The rule of law, individual liberty, justice for all, and the convention is the bedrock for all that... We need to uphold human rights here in the modern, all-powerful state." He said of Grieve: "I regret that he's gone; I don't know why [he's gone]".

He called the debate taking place in this country about the Convention "slightly absurd."

Finally, the famously straight-talking MP was asked about the importance of politicians who speak their minds. "It helps to speak human," he remarked. "I think we take less notice of rather lightweight PR people who want us to repeat slogans all the time."

Could this be a little, final dig at our PR PM?

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.