Ken Clarke: the sixth Lib Dem cabinet minister

by Stephen Tall on October 3, 2010

Part of the Coalition deal was that the Lib Dems secured five cabinet posts, a number in proportion to the party’s number of MPs. But there was another appointment which can be counted a success of the Coalition from the Lib Dem perspective: the appointment of Ken Clarke as secretary of state for justice.

It’s a success on two levels.

First, Ken Clarke is a liberal Tory — so for the first time in 17 years (since Ken Clarke was home secretary in John Major’s government) the UK has a believer in restorative justice setting government policy. After the right-wing reactionariness of Michael Howard and successive Labour home secretaries, Good Ol’ Ken is a breath of fresh air.

Secondly, Ken Clarke is able to promote a more liberal justice policy precisely because he’s not a Lib Dem. If Nick Clegg had been able to put in place a Lib Dem, they would have had to spend much of their time tacking to the centre-right, reassuring Tory MPs that the justice system would still be safe in their hands. Yet Ken will feel no such need. It is precisely because he is a Tory, and a grizzled political survivor, that he can be his own guy.

Ken Clarke is the subject of an in-depth interview in today’s Observer from which it was clear he’s loving the job, loving the flexibility of Coalition government:

Kenneth Clarke has never been a taut, tense kind of politician. But as the Conservative party enjoys its first conference in power for 14 years, he appears to be in a particularly cosy mood: comfortable in his office at the Ministry of Justice; at ease in his role as secretary of state in a coalition government; and delighted with his party’s new partners – the Liberal Democrats. “I enjoy it like mad,” he says animatedly as he discusses his return, aged 70, to the cabinet. …

Backed up by sympathetic allies among the Lib Dems, Clarke has been talking about a “rehabilitation revolution” in the justice system. Plans include widespread restorative justice, diverting drug addicts and the mentally ill out of jail, and a sentencing overhaul. The result could be thousands of people convicted of minor crimes being given community alternatives to prison. There are unlikely to be standing ovations from the floor for that, but Clarke is conspicuously happy to be pushing for reforms he believes in. “The speech to judges I made, they were my views,” says Clarke, “shared actually by 90% of the people who’ve got anything to do with the criminal justice system… It helps that I have Liberal Democrat coalition partners. And it helps that we’re in the middle of a financial crisis, because alternative approaches – some of them [are] completely unaffordable.”

Clarke describes it as a “happy coincidence” that the Lib Dems are so supportive of his “genuine opinion”. He describes the coalition as going “swimmingly well” with everyone getting on. Occasionally, he goes further, once with a comment that could rile his colleagues on the right, who fear the Lib Dems are watering down the party’s agenda.

“It is my view that we have the possibility, if we get it right, of delivering more as a coalition than a Conservative government with a small majority in parliament could have delivered. I think the present situation, in the national interests, from the national point of view, is better than a Conservative government with a tiny majority over two opposition parties would have been.”

Would Ken Clarke be justice secretary in a majority Tory government? I somehow doubt it. I suspect that, if David Cameron had been reliant on right-wing Tory MPs, Ken would have been given a more ceremonial role in government, leader of the house, for example.

That we have a liberal justice secretary is thanks to the Coalition; and, ironically, that we have a justice secretary able to pursue this liberal agenda is precisely because the role is occupied by an unsackable Conservative.