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20 April 2010

Where is Kenneth Clarke?

What has come of the Cameron come-back kid who is about the only Tory who could attract Lib Dems?

By James Macintyre

In January 2009, I was among the first to pay tribute to David Cameron for — boldly if belatedly — bringing Kenneth Clarke back out of the shadows and onto the front-bench. I wrote at the time:

Cameron should be praised for surprising his critics – including this one – with a bold move that, in a stroke, does as much to “decontaminate” the brand of Conservatism as have all his superficial image changes since 2005.

…Clarke is one of very few politicians with genuine popular appeal: what strategists call “cut through”, an ability to connect. It is arguable whether Labour has anyone as popular. Although Brown, Alistair Darling and Mandelson – “serious people for serious times” – represent a heavyweight team on the economy, the Tories appear to be on the front foot for the first time since the Business Secretary’s recall. Suddenly, it is harder for Cameron to be criticised from the left by those who believe he has done nothing substantial to change the Tory party. The “nasty party” image has faded more this week than in any other in the past decade.

And I concluded:

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There was a telling moment this week when a Tory spin doctor briefed the press that Clarke would “lead” the ­economic fightback, before correcting himself: he would “help lead” it. But the question of whether this impressive, if overdue, move will be enough to transform the Tories’ image depends entirely on the extent to which Cameron allows Clarke to lead their fightback – and not just on the economy.

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I would argue that the last point still applies. Clarke could be a huge asset for the Tories, yet he seems barely present at the forefront of their campaign, while Gordon Brown regularly wheels out Darling, Mandelson et al.

This could possibly be linked to the internal discussion that has apparently taken place inside the Tory party recently about what to do about the Treasury job if the Tories win. Though many in the party wish that Clarke has replaced George Osborne as shadow chancellor back in January 2009, they accept he is relatively sidelined, for now. But some say the real test for Cameron is whether he can make Clarke, and not Osborne, chancellor if he wins office. He has repeatedly said he could “sack” Osborne — despite the two being close and God-fathers to each other’s children — but most suspect that he will not make the dramatic move. Cameron is much closer politically to Osborne than to Clarke, and the Tory leader and his shadow chancellor may possibly even be a little wary of the former Chancellor’s popular appeal.

Either way, the Tories would surely do well to stop relying so heavily on Cameron alone, and deploy the likes of Clarke. After all, in the current climate, Clarke is precisely the man who could appeal to Liberal Democrats. Norman Tebbit recently attacked him for reaching out to the Lib Dems, saying:

The difficulties are compounded by the advice being given by Mr Clarke who recently declared on the BBC that, “Nick [Clegg] is a Conservative. Vince Cable is a social democrat. The [Liberal Democrat] party is all over the place.” The imperative for the Tories is to establish that Mr Clegg is a pro-immigration sycophantic Europhile with no policy whatsoever, beyond defence cuts, to reduce the crippling burden of the national debt.

Cameron would do well to ignore the sometimes-wise Tebbit, as he has often done to be fair, and listen more to the man in the hush puppies. Whether he does is nothing less than a test of his political maturity.