Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Prove Your Mettle

A strange thing happened in the Conservative leadership election. Normally I would be in favour of the modernising candidate; the candidate prepared to take on the nasty shibboleths of the extreme wings of the party and to revamp the image of the party. Yet I didn't, and still haven't, warmed to David Cameron. There is something about him that seems too slick, too convenient, too unprincipled for me to want to back him to be leader of my country. So the really strange thing happened: I found myself warming considerably towards David Davis.

Davis seemed to conduct a campaign that was based far more on policy, on substance, than Cameron, who was and is primarily concerned with image. I hope that will change in the future. Davis's mantra, "people want to know what we mean. Not what we stand for, but what we mean" is something that I wish was shared by more politicians.

There is one key task for an opposition frontbencher, though, and that is to stick the knife in and twist it when something happens to the Minister in your portfolio. Throughout their time in opposition, the Tories have been resolutely useless at this task. Instead, Blair has, more or less, been able to shuffle his disgraced Ministers off quietly, once the story had passed over. Theresa May's abject handling of the Jo Moore "burying bad news" story, for example, failed to get rid of Stephen Byers. Despite the fact that this was as close to an open goal as anyone ever gets given in politics. Failure after failure, and yet the Tories have seemed like rabbits in the headlights when given the chance to finish a Minister off.

David Davis has had a better record than most on this count, of course, successfully demanding the resignation of Beverley Hughes, and keeping up pressure on David Blunkett until the Budd inquiry forced him out. If Hughes's case, involving the failure to track an immigration scam, was a prima facie case for resignation, though, the news about Charles Clarke failing to ensure the deportation of foreign convicted criminals (including murderers and rapists) must be an even more certain case for resignation.

Clarke, of course, is a far tougher cookie than Hughes. As much as I despise the anti-civil liberties agenda that Clarke has devised, every time I see him in the House I'm impressed by his performance. Disturbed by his content, yes, morally opposed to what he says, certainly. But if you were looking for a politician to sell ID Cards, then it would be Charles Clarke. And if he is prepared to face down the vocal and widespread criticism of that scheme, he will have the spirit for a fight to protect his position.

Clarke's failure to control his department is something that will weaken his authority dramatically, of course. When stories like this one appear, as they surely will in droves, people will now find it hard to believe the usual refrain that "instances like this are rare, and we will monitor all developments to find out what went wrong". It will contribute to an image that Labour is not in control of crime, especially violent crime, and that will be something that is damaging to a government whose most memorable soundbites refer to law and order.

The Tories, now, however, are up against the determination of Blair and Clarke, two of the most formidable men in British politics. Now, more than ever, is a test of their mettle and their political skill. This is a gilt-edged opportunity to seriously damage Labour. If Clarke goes, then their anti-terrorism agenda will be seriously damaged - there isn't another figure who could handle that so adeptly. The reason why Blair has not sacked Clarke is nothing to do with this specific case, it is all about the broader reform agenda.

Removing Clarke, therefore, has to be a priority. Now is the time for the Tories to prove that they are a government-in-waiting. Lord knows, there's enough that's going wrong with this country at the moment. The NHS is in a state of chaos; our civil liberties are being whittled away; education shows precious little sign of improvement despite the millions that have been lavished on it. If the Tories get rid of Clarke now, they get rid of someone upon whom Blair has pinned his hopes of securing a legacy. The resolve of Labour's backbenchers will likely be strengthened, too, which would give the benefit of Brown taking over as the champion of the old left, rather than part of an orderly succession.

David Davis, your moment in the limelight has arrived.