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?