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19 January 2009

Ken Clarke’s return

New Statesman political editor Martin Bright gives his reaction to the return of former Tory chancel

By Martin Bright

David Cameron owes it all to Ken Clarke. Although it’s pretty certain he doesn’t see it that way, there is no doubt that Cameron won the Tory party leadership because the support of Tory centrists seeped to away from Clarke about half way through the contest.

The reasons for Clarke’s failure were clear enough at the time. He was complacent and underestimated the hunger of the Cameron camp; his outside interests, especially in the tobacco industry, were embarrassing to the party and meant that he spent relatively little time in the Commons.

But Clarke’s failings, which played to Cameron’s advantage in the leadership campaign could return to haunt the Tory leader now the former chancellor is part of the Shadow Cabinet.

As I wrote in, October 2005, the real Ken Clarke was nothing like the cuddly, avuncular figure of popular mythology. He was a casual parliamentarian and a hawker of cigarettes on behalf of tobacco giant BAT. And although he has a reputation as a moderate, he was an authoritarian home secretary and a traditionalist on education. He is no moderniser.

That said, his grasp of the economy is good. Gordon Brown would have done well to invite him into the National Economic Council, but now Cameron has got there first.

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But Tories should also be concerned that this was a decision taken in reaction to the appointment of Peter Mandelson as business secretary: a Tory big beast to match a Labour big beast. Until last autumn Cameron was driving the political agenda on every front from the environment to work-life balance. This appointment makes it look like he is running to catch up.