Is Kenneth Clarke — and his experiment with prison reform — finished in British politics?

Longtime observers of British politics will note with some alarm recent reports that justice minister Kenneth Clarke may be headed out of UK prime minister David Cameron’s cabinet, pursuant to a widely expected cabinet reshuffle in early September.

To contemplate this is to see the final curtain drawn on one of the ‘big beasts’ of British politics in the past three decades — as has been noted, Clarke won his first ministerial role when UK chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne was just one year old.

The Telegraph reports that Cameron is considering replacing Clarke with Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary (and the ill-fated former leader of the Tories from 2003 to 2005), or Nick Herbert, a junior justice minister.  Even more odd is the way in which Clarke has issued a statement on the potential reshuffle:

“I have never had any conversations of any kind with the Prime Minister or anyone acting on his behalf about a reshuffle. I am totally laid back about a reshuffle and am waiting to see whether or not it affects me,” he said.

Clarke is, simply put, one of a kind: a bloke in a party of toffs.

Second to Boris Johnson, perhaps, Clarke connects with the British people in a way that few Tories have managed in recent times.

First elected to Parliament in 1970 for the Rushcliffe constituency, Clarke served as a junior whip in the governments of Edward Heath in the 1970s.  He was promoted under prime minister Margaret Thatcher to minister of state for health and later as minister of state for education and science.

But Clarke truly came into his own as one of the major figures in the government of John Major, who immediately appointed Clarke as his home minister and then as chancellor, following the resignation of Norman Lamont and the ‘Black Wednesday’ debacle for the British pound.  Clarke continued to serve through the end of the Major government as one of its most popular members, though not always with Conservatives themselves.  Clarke was well known as and one of the most pro-euro Tories, hearkening back to his roots with the more moderate Heath wing of the Conservative Party; nonetheless, his pro-Europe views won much enmity among a Tory caucus very much divided over Europe in the mid-1990s.

Clarke ran repeatedly for Conservative Party leader during the Tory wilderness years:

  • In 1997, he was runner-up to William Hague, who won with a last-minute endorsement from Thatcher herself, despite a late alliance between Clarke and the rabidly euroskpetic John Redwood.
  • In 2001, he edged out frontrunner Michael Portillo in the first round, but lost the second round vote among the Tory rank-and-file to the inexperienced Duncan Smith.
  • In 2005, Clarke ran one last time, and he played up his role as a ‘big beast’ of British politics and famously joked at the Blackpool conference, “Boy, have you kept me waiting.”

But the Tories were just fine with keeping Clarke waiting forever, and elected Cameron, now the prime minister, as their leader instead.

Indeed it was with mild surprise that Clarke, now 72, took on the role of justice minister in Cameron’s government.  As justice minister, Clarke has argued that lengthy prison sentences don’t work and signaled that he would work to reduce the number of incarcerated prisoners.

Prison reform in the United Kingdom has been a bit of a disaster in the Cameron government, though, with Clarke and Cameron tussling publically over how far to reform the prison system — Clarke ultimately backed down over a plan to discount sentences by 50% in return for early pleas.  Clarke has also worked to put more discretion in the hands of judges with respect to sentencing.  The upside for the Cameron government in implementing such reforms would be to reduce the justice ministry’s costs by up to 25%.

But those reforms have also been controversial among a considerable segment of the Tory parliamentary caucus.  Clarke even got into a row with home secretary Theresa May late last year, leading to May’s exasperated response, “Ken – I lock them up, you let them out.”

So it’s no surprise to see right-wingers, who never trusted Clarke, briefing against him:

A Tory MP on the Right of the party said: “Ken must accept he has had his day and it is time to move on. We must send out to voters a coherent and tough message on law and order and we are not doing that at the moment.

“It is not for nothing Ken is sometimes known as the sixth Liberal Democrat in the cabinet.”

Tough words.  If Cameron does push Clarke out, it will not just be a move to bring newer blood into the cabinet.  It will also be not an insignificant shift rightward within the Tory high guard, and it will most likely mean the end of the Tory experiment with progressive prison reform.

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