Ken Clarke: the sixth Lib Dem cabinet minister

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.

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  • Ken Clarke needs to be on the side of the law abiding general public rather than the criminal.
    He is pandering to the minority Lib Dems in Coalition rather than supporting the majority of Conservatives and especially the ones that voted for him in the GE.

  • The thing that is both terrifying and fascinating that after 13 years of Labour we have a better Justice/Home Affairs policy by working with the Tories. To be fair to Terresa May (not something I thought I would ever say) but she is the best Home Secretary since Kenneth Clarke. It is a tragedy that Labour, the party that once had Roy Jenkins as Home Secretary, gave us such a ghastly run of incopetent authoritiarian bullies.

  • Does his deputy Chairmanship of British American Tobacco not register in your ledger of liberalism? BAT is a company that targets its advertising in the developing world at children. About 5 million people die from smoking each year, most of whom start smoking at a young age.

    I would have hoped that even the most lily-livered Liberal Democrat would think twice before welcoming a representative of such a monstrous trade as one of their own.

  • Braveheart,

    I think it is time for Labour trolls to acquaint themsevles with the way the system works.

    Before the election, Vince Cable, as Liberal Democrat Treasury Spokesman, supported party policy. After the election, as Business Secretary in the Coalition government, he supports Coalition policy. Is that too hard to understand?

    Like lawyers, politicians have to argue a case which they may or may not believe to be right. However, unlike lawyers, who make it clear that they are speaking on behalf of their clients, politicians have to pretend that the things they say on behalf of their parties are their own personal beliefs.

    Besides, the speed of deficit reduction is not an issue of core principle, it is a technical matter that should be determined on the basis of expert advice.

    Did you ever have any problem with Harold Wilson supporting Britain’s membership of the Common Market one minute, and opposing it the next?

  • G,

    Your stricture against Ken Clarke is perfectly fair and accurate.

  • Robert might to well to read Chris White’s piece on checking facts first –

    The fact is that, where restorative justice has been used, offenders are less likely to re-offend than they are after a custodial sentence. Furthermore, victims are more content that justice has been done. Of course you won’t read about that in the tabloids because it goes against their thirst for revenge. But surely a policy which reduces re-offending and satisfies victims is a good thing.

  • Mike(The Labour one) 3rd Oct '10 - 4:34pm

    @Sesenco: You’re wrong- the Lib Dems were arguing for early cuts with Labour in coalition talks, Nick Clegg said he changed his mind beforehand, and the FT ran a story about how Vince Cable never believed in delaying cuts (from anonymous senior Lib Dems). I think it was all a posture to screw more from the Tories by “conceding” early cuts in exchange for other things- we know the Lib Dems weren’t averse to lying by telling the Tories that Labour had offered AV without a referendum.

    Who were they compromising with when Clegg said his position changed before the election? Who were they compromising with when making early cuts a condition for coalition with Labour? And no experts are objective, it’s all about priorities and ideology. If there was a surefire way to calculate when the best time to cut is then that should happen, but there isn’t, it’s a matter of judgment. What we’re left with is a party who campaigned on the idea that early cuts would be harmful and hours later were specifically making sure early cuts happen.

    I hope this new direction is successful however, Labour’s Home Office was far too much of a Daily Mail-led institution.

  • Eminently sensible points from Sesenco!

    Really good to see Ken Clarke making a positive contribution. I wish him and all the liberal-minded ministers of all parties well. I only wish the others (like Cable) were enjoying it as much.

    And he’s right, Coalition government is delivering more for Britain than any one party could have done.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 3rd Oct '10 - 5:52pm

    Sesenco and Mike (The Labour one)

    I think you’re both falling into the trap of thinking that what these people say reflects their real opinions about what is “right.”

    I’m sure it’s more than 90% about what will be popular, what can be presented plausibly, what will fit into the narrative, what will differentiate the party from whoever happen to be its opponents at the time or – after the election – what will be good negotiating tactics.

    If there are any real opinions there, they’re buried under a big heap of other considerations.

  • Clarke has not worked for BAT in 3 years.

    In any case, it has precisely zilch to do with his performance as Justice Secretary.

    This throw any old crap at someone, regardless of their current position and performance just to get a cheap political hit routine is very tiresome.

    All I care about now is that we have an effective and progressive Justice minister, and for the time being at least, it seems we do.

  • Mike(The Labour one) 3rd Oct '10 - 6:00pm

    @Anthony St. Aloysius: Granted- I know for certain leading Lib Dems aren’t honest- but you can you tell me, for example, what considerations would lead the Lib Dems towards making early cuts a condition with Labour?

    If they didn’t agree with early cuts, as they had said and as that paper by Vince Cable warned against, why would they make them a condition with another party that also didn’t agree with early cuts?

    Anyway, if they actually still believe that early cuts will jeopardize the recovery then to support them for political reasons is irresponsible. And if they were lying beforehand and never really opposed early cuts then they took the voting public for fools for political reasons.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 3rd Oct '10 - 6:30pm


    “but you can you tell me, for example, what considerations would lead the Lib Dems towards making early cuts a condition with Labour?”

    One cynical possibility springs immediately to mind – that they didn’t want those talks with Labour to succeed. But of course I don’t know the answer, and in any case I’d be hesitant to take Labour claims about the talks at face value. Obviously Labour has a clear interest in trying to blame the Lib Dems for the failure of the talks, and also in portraying the Lib Dems as advocates of early cuts.

    My real point is that it would be as silly to take Nick Clegg’s current claims at face value, as it would have been to trust what he said during the election campaign.

  • Ryan M, Clarke had a very senior position at BAT when they were flogging cigarettes to children (he was also aware of BATs top secret factory in North Korea). He is a man who is more than happy to get rich from the misery of others. Do you really want creatures such as Clarke in your party?

  • Mike(The Labour one) 3rd Oct '10 - 9:09pm

    @Anthony St. Aloysius: I think Labour’s account measures up. Nick Clegg said himself he changed his mind before the election, so it would have been strange had he not done so- it just would have been nice if they’d told us beforehand or even immediately after rather than months later.

    If the Lib Dems are lying now and actually do think it’s the wrong thing to do- that’s somehow even worse, anyway. I don’t think “Alright, we said we changed our minds and ensured early cuts would happen but now that it’s been proven to have been a disaster we’re saying it was because of compromise and we actually opposed it secretly” will go down well. If they think it’s the wrong thing to do then someone should say so- Simon Hughes shouldn’t be attacking Ed Miliband for suppsed “deficit-denialism” for example.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 4th Oct '10 - 12:50am

    Nick Clegg said himself he changed his mind before the election, so it would have been strange had he not done so- it just would have been nice if they’d told us beforehand or even immediately after rather than months later.

    Of course I agree that what Clegg did – according to his own account – is completely unacceptable. Democracy becomes a totally meaningless concept if politicians feel free to lie about their policies during an election campaign and reverse them the day after the votes are counted.

    However, I really do doubt whether Nick Clegg thinks in terms of “the right/wrong thing to do” in the way you suggest. I reckon his thought processes run much more like this: “We have to support the coalition, for the good of [everyone can choose their own criterion here]. Majority opinion within the coalition is in favour of early cuts. So we all have to get behind that policy.” And unfortunately I think similar reasoning underlies his approach – and therefore the party’s approach – to every other area of policy.

  • James from Durham 4th Oct '10 - 12:11pm

    We certainly shouldn’t be fawning over Ken in this way. He is not a nice man – the BAT business is a massive stain on his character. Obviously, he has more personal charm and charisma than almost anyone else in front-bench politics – it’s hard not be affected by this as GarryK admits. However it is possible for someone who is not “a nice person” to have a sensible balanced view about what does and what does not work in the sphere of crime and punishment.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 4th Oct '10 - 1:33pm

    Ken Clarke: the sixth Lib Dem cabinet minister – No but possibly the only Keynesian.

  • Is it possible that we could nick Ken Clark from the Conservatives?

  • Working for a tobacco company is nothing to do with his performance or suitability to be justice secretary. Vince Cable used to work for Shell, therefore being employed to sell polluting fossil fuels. Some people think that’s bad too.

    BAT is a legal company, therefore Clarke is fine to be justice sec. And he’s not doing a bad job either.

    Another reason why coalition with the tories was a million times better for us than coalition with labour would’ve been, regardless of electoral maths. Control freaks pandering to the Daily mail, or a liberal conservative in favour of restorative justice. I know what I prefer.

  • Richard Underhill 8th Sep '19 - 10:00am
  • Jayne Mansfield 8th Sep '19 - 11:46am

    And what does Ken Clarke say in an article in the Sunday Times?

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