In front bench out of bounds for Clarke?

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor He’s burned his boats with a prime minister he accuses of losing purpose and direction. And relations between him and Gordon Brown have long been difficult. So where, asks political editor Chris Fisher, does Charles Clarke go from here?

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor

Some people, including Tory shadow home secretary David Davis, think that Charles Clarke has just done to Tony Blair what Lord (Sir Geoffrey) Howe did to Margaret Thatcher in his famous resignation speech in the Commons in 1990. That is, leave his old colleague and ally so wounded and debilitated that the coup de grace has to follow quickly.

A better analogy, however, is with the resignation/sacking statement by Lord (Norman) Lamont in 1993.

Notwithstanding the Class A debacle and humiliation of sterling's 'Black Wednesday' collapse a few months earlier, he could not understand why prime minister John Major wished to move him from the post of chancellor.

He refused an alternative cabinet position, and lashed out in the Commons: "The government listen too much to the pollsters and the party managers… there is too much short-termism, too much reacting to events… we give the impression of being in office but not in power… far too many important decisions are made for 36 hours' publicity."

Do you have a sense of déjà vu? Despite the Category One cock-up over the release of foreign prisoners without consideration being given to deportation, Mr Clarke has not been able to accept Mr Blair's decision to take the post of home secretary away from him. He refused up to three alternative cabinet portfolios. He has now grabbed media opportunities to accuse the prime minister of losing his sense of purpose and direction - close to telling him he gives an impression of being in office but not in power -and has implicitly accused his successor, John Reid, of chasing favourable headlines in the national tabloids.

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The Norwich MP feels hard done by. He has spoken of wanting to clear his name and of having "to defend my own reputation as home secretary". He resents the suggestions - put out by Dr Reid among others - that he had presided over a multi-faceted shambles at the Home Office, and that his successor has a long list of non-functioning parts to fix. And he is particularly riled by Dr Reid's comment that the department was, or had become "not fit for purpose". In which case, one might well wonder why Mr Clarke appeared to agree with a comment in the Commons on April 26 by Labour backbencher John Spellar that the Home Office was "seriously dysfunctional".

What proportion of the general public, media commentators and indeed Labour MPs does not agree with the essence of the Reid/Spellar charges? The failure of the Home Office over foreign prisoners was so elementary, yet so potentially serious, that it still beggars belief it could have happened at all.

Not that such problems first turned up when Mr Clarke became home secretary in December 2004. For many years - under David Blunkett and Jack Straw - the home office has been bombarding the nation with immigration and asylum statistics that no-one believes and with crime figures that appear to be aimed more at massaging the public's perception of lawlessness than at tackling the reality of it.

Nonetheless, if the prime minister had not 'sacked' Mr Clarke in the May 4 reshuffle, he would have had to do so since. The controversy and sense of scandal surrounding the Home Office would have been so much louder and more intense if the Norwich MP had still been running it.

In dismissing Mr Clarke, Mr Brown plainly was responding to newspaper headlines. But that doesn't mean he was wrong to do so. It's not impossible for the 'tabloids' and the public mood they are leading or reflecting to be right.

So where does Mr Clarke go from here? What is his strategy for his future? Is his main aim to secure a top cabinet post under Gordon Brown? Alternatively might his adverse criticisms of Mr Blair show that he still has some interest in becoming Labour leader, and prime minister, himself? The answer to the last question ought to be 'No', for he seems to have no power base in his party.

After their resignation speeches, neither Lord Howe nor Lord Lamont had another front bench position in Parliament.

Mr Clarke's best hope lies in a calculation by Mr Brown that he will need some people who are both heavyweight political figures and not out-and-out Brownites in his cabinet.

But he and Mr Clarke have never been the best of mates, and the question of loyalty is bound to be on his mind, too.

A final question: If Mr Clarke had remained home secretary but everything else had stayed the same, would he now be broadcasting unfavourable comments about the prime minister? Or telling those complaining about Mr Blair that they had got it all wrong?