Monday, 19 January 2009

Ken Clarke is high risk for Cameron

Labour today has unveiled its plan for an insurance scheme for the banks. Meanwhile David Cameron has been doing a front bench reshuffle of the shadow cabinet. This is not meant to be a primarily political blog although it may have seemed like it at times but the appointment of Kenneth Clarke to shadow Business Secretary Lord Mandelson is something I can't ignore.

Much is being made of Clarke's stance over the EU, something that's raised the hackles of some of the more right wing Tories and also some of that party's donors. Apparently Cameron and Clarke have agreed to disagree; rather like Basil Fawlty saying "don't mention the war" it seems now to be a case of "don't mention Europe"! When the General Election approaches the Tories will have to decide on whether to adhere to their previous commitment to include a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in their manifesto, something potentially worth a lot of votes. What the Irish decide to do will influence this no doubt but Cameron will worry about Clarke. Ken by instinct is the sort of person to shoot from the hip, to use straightforward quite robust language and this is to many voters an admirable trait. The downside for the Tories is the risk that he'll go off message.

In the more immediate future the thing that concerns me about Ken Clarke is the lapse of judgment he showed over the VAT rate reduction. At PMQs last week Cameron tried to goad Brown on the disastrous decision to reduce the VAT rate. Brown tried to turn the tables by quoting Clarke's support for the VAT change. That didn't matter with Clarke sat on the backbenches but will be next to impossible to repeat in future confrontations with the PM. On reflection maybe that's why Cameron was keen to make the point last Wednesday realising perhaps that would be his last opportunity.

Another point about rehabilitating Clarke could be that he is at least very identifiable by the population at large. It's often difficult in a shadow cabinet to become a household name, alright for the political anoraks but how many of Cameron's team and their positions are known to the public at large? Cameron, Osborne and now Clarke but how many others? Having said this and casting my mind back to 1997 just prior to Labour coming into power the same question could have been asked. Certainly Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Perhaps David Blunkett. Not many others I would have thought. Of course Cameron realises just how important communication is these days and if it were solely a contest between Brown and Cameron (using their communication skills) the latter would have a walkover.

Very interesting times to come, I'm sure about that.

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