Sunday, 18 January 2009

Ken "King of the Timelords" is back

Ken Clarke, the former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer and one of the biggest beasts in the Westminster jungle, is to return to frontline politics as Shadow Business Secretary.

The return of Mr Clarke to shadow Peter Mandelson, another “Timelord” politician brought back into government by Gordon Brown, brings to an end weeks of speculation about a Conservative Shadow cabinet refshuffle.

The appointment of Mr Clarke, at the age of 68, to replace Alan Duncan, is considered a high risk strategy for Conservative leader David Cameron. Mr Duncan will be moved to another senior post in the party. Caroline Spelman, the party chairman facing investigation into her use of Commons expenses, could be a victim of the reshuffle.

Mr Clarke carries an enormous amount of political and economic respect but his appointment will open a rift with Euro-sceptic Tory MPs who bitterly oppose him. Mr Cameron also runs the of risk alienating his friend and shadow Chancellor George Osborne although last night Conservatives were briefing that the deal to bring Mr Clarke in from the cold was done at the Shadow Chancellor’s insistence and the deal was sealed at his home on the weekend.

Mr Clarke brings the knowledge and experience of bringing Britain out of the last recession in the 1990s but he also has a reputation for causing trouble. He has been rejected three times as leader of the party because of his pro-European views.

The leadership and the new shadow business secretary have agreed to disagree on the issue and Mr Clarke will maintain a vow of silence. If so that would be an incredible feat that Mr Clarke has never maintained in his political career so far.

Mr Clarke was appointed to parliament in 1970, a year before George Osborne was born, and he took his first ministerial post in 1979. He held every major Cabinet post except the premiership before the Tories' defeat in 1997 and has been on the backbenches ever since.

Most recently he antagonised colleagues by endorsing some Labour policies, including Gordon Brown's move to cut VAT to boost the economy.

In a weekend interview with the Guardian in which he said he was "excited" by the prospect of returning to the front bench, Mr Clarke ruffled more feathers by questioning Tory plans to offer tax cuts at the next election, suggesting that to do so was “asking for trouble”.

Mr Cameron’s re-shuffle comes as two opinion polls re-enforced the Conservative lead over the government. A YouGov poll on Sunday put the Conservatives on 45 per cent up four points on last month, 13 points ahead of Labour who were down three on 32 per cent. A ComRes poll put the Tory lead at nine points.

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