Andy McSmith: A plainspoken politician who spoke too plainly

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The Independent Online

Margaret Thatcher singled out Ken Clarke in her memoirs as someone she included in her Cabinet because his skill as a communicator made him more dangerous to her out than in.

She appreciated his blunt manner, as when he accused doctors who opposed the health reforms of the late 1980s of "reaching nervously for their wallets". She was less pleased when Clarke stepped forward as the first cabinet minister to tell her it was time for her to resign, though "his manner was robust in the brutalist style he has cultivated".

At times, that "brutalist" style has served Clarke well, by giving him the look of a rare politician who is not afraid to speak the truth, but yesterday it made him look tactless and dated. The Justice Secretary probably began his day thinking it was to be business as usual, given the number of battles he has fought in the past with Labour, the Tory right and the right-wing press, all of whom were ganging up against a proposal to reform rape sentencing.

It was not just Clarke's idea. It had been endorsed by the Cabinet's heavyweight home affairs committee, and did not apply only to rapists. But Labour's Jack Straw, the Daily Mail and The Sun honed in on rape as the most politically sensitive aspect of the proposal. It was Clarke's job to put the case, which he did in his usual "brutalist" manner, oblivious – it seems – to the impact of his words, particularly on women who have suffered sexual assaults.

Clarke has spent more years in government than anyone else alive, and has sailed through countless storms. But when David Cameron holds his first Cabinet reshuffle, those now calling for Clarke's sacking may finally get their way.

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