Page last updated at 02:44 GMT, Monday, 19 January 2009

A heavyweight tempted back by a crisis

By Ben Wright
BBC political correspondent


A look at the career of Kenneth Clarke

The economic crisis continues to contort politics in rather extraordinary ways.

Would Peter (now Lord) Mandelson have buried the hatchet and returned to Gordon Brown's government in more benign economic times? Perhaps not.

But a big crisis requires big people. So one of the Conservative Party's most recognisable characters has been tempted down from the backbenches to fight on the front line.

Ken Clarke has been considering it for a while.

In November, with a hint of the lip-licking ambition that might have deserted most 68-year-olds, he said in a newspaper interview: "It's a pity I'm not chancellor at a time like this because I like a crisis.

"It gets the adrenalin going. This one really is tricky, so it would be fun to be involved."

But replacing George Osborne as the Tories' shadow chancellor was not on the cards and party sources have been anxious to stress that the plan to bring Ken Clarke back was in fact the work of Mr Osborne.

So BERR - the Department of Business and Regulatory Reform - will be the area that Ken Clarke shadows.

And that pits Mr Clarke against Lord Mandelson - though not in Parliament, where one is in the Commons, the other in the Lords.

So why the return?

Cameron and Clarke have agreed to disagree on Europe
Nick Robinson
BBC political editor

The arguments for bringing Clarke back were strong. First, he's got economic clout.

He was a well-respected chancellor who led the British economy from the end of the recession in the early 1990s into the good times.

Like the Lib Dems' Vince Cable he talks about the subject in a way most people understand.

Then there's Ken the character.

The jovial, cigar-chomping, bird-watching, jazz-loving, beer-drinking Ken Clarke isn't a slick political waxwork. He's his own bloke.

And that's long had appeal beyond Westminster.

Economic clout

For a Conservative front-bench heavy with youthful professional politicians, a heavyweight like Ken Clarke brings ballast and experience.

He likes a fight too.

As health secretary in the late 1980s he had bruising battles with striking ambulance staff and doctors opposed to his NHS reforms.

He was just as robust dealing with teachers and officials as education secretary.

So what are the risks?

Ken Clarke
Mr Clarke was a well-respected chancellor in the last Tory government

The obvious one is Europe. Ken Clarke is the party's best known Europhile.

He has long supported joining the single currency and backs the Lisbon Treaty. He does not think there should be a referendum on it.

These views are the exact opposite of the leadership, of a party that is arguably even more euro-sceptic than it was when it was last in power.

The line from the Tories is that this isn't a problem.

They say Ken Clarke's views are well known and they are not going to change; so Cameron's team and the new shadow Business Secretary will simply agree to disagree on Europe.

This is a very unusual abandonment of (shadow) cabinet collective responsibility. Even though the Euro debate seems dead for now, that and a revived Lisbon Treaty could strain this arrangement.

Before news of his appointment, some euro-sceptic Tories had already attacked the prospect of the former chancellor's return.

Norman Tebbit said he was too lazy for front-bench life.

Then there is the question of quite how joined at the hip he is with the Conservative party leadership on the thrust of the party's economic argument.

Before the government's VAT cut he said it would be a good idea. Then he changed his mind.

He has suggested that fiscal stimulus - encouraging spending to boost the economy - is a sensible response to recession if the country can afford it.

Conservative sources say this is exactly their position too but any sense of a difference in view will be seized upon.

The party has chosen not to have Ken Clarke lead it on three separate occasions since 1997.

His views on Europe were probably decisive to his defeats.

But he is a heavyweight with economic clout and popular appeal.

David Cameron clearly thinks that bringing this free-thinker back outweighs any risks, and ministers might worry that Ken Clarke is now back on board.

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific