David Cameron has presented a plausible government-in-waiting to both the Conservative Party and to the country. This is an impressive and major set of personnel changes. The new line-up have every prospect of actually entering government as real cabinet ministers sometime within the next 16 months.
Previous reshuffles have had little resonance with the public because no one imagined that they would result in real jobs in government. But, for the first time in 12 years of Tory opposition, this reshuffle will be judged on the basis that there is a realistic chance these changes will materialise into cabinet posts.
The decision to recall Kenneth Clarke to the front line is fraught with risk, but risk well worth taking. No one can doubt Mr Clarke's appeal to voters or the gravitas his appointment adds to the weight – in every sense – of experience now available to Mr Cameron. Mr Clarke is a first-rate Commons performer and will add badly needed "edge" to the overall performance of the Shadow Cabinet.
The message sent out to the country is that there is now a collective Tory hunger for power. Mr Clarke would not waste his time, when he clearly enjoys life so much, on the confines of collective responsibility, and an endless diet of rubber chicken, if he did not think there was a realistic prospect of a government red box at the end of the grim sacrifice.
Of course, the risk is that Labour strategists will set traps for Mr Clarke over Europe. On this, and other issues, Mr Clarke has voted against his own party 33 times during the years of opposition. And, although he and Mr Cameron have arrived at a formula to "disagree about Europe", this will be sorely tested in the run-up to the European elections in June.
Will Mr Clarke be able to stay "on message" when teased about the policy to withdraw Tory MEPs from the European Christian Democrat grouping? What if the euro implodes in the months ahead? Will he sign up to Mr Hague's promise to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty? Acknowledging these pitfalls, Mr Cameron has promoted his Eurosceptic shadow Europe spokesman Mark Francois to full membership of the Shadow Cabinet.
But strenuous efforts will be made by Labour, the media and Eurosceptic Tory hardliners to test to destruction any differences in approach to economic policy which may occur, albeit inadvertently, between Mr Clarke and the shadow Chancellor, George Osborne. By all accounts, however, it seems that Mr Osborne is more than relaxed, claiming to have proposed Mr Clarke's promotion in the first place. Mr Osborne has had a bad credit crunch, but it is to his credit that he is prepared to embrace the huge experience offered by Mr Clarke.
The appointments of Alan Duncan and Eric Pickles to shadow Leader of the Commons and the party chairmanship strengthen the party's ability to communicate overall policy on radio and television. Both are excellent communicators who, between them, appeal beyond the grassroots to the wider electorate. Any disappointment Mr Duncan might have felt about making way for Mr Clarke should be assuaged by his appointment as shadow minister for the Today programme.
Mr Pickles, a consummate party organiser, with huge election experience, ran rings round Labour when he master-minded last year's Tory victory in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election. His earthy, plain-speaking, Yorkshire style will be a counter-argument to the charge that the party is run by Old Etonian toffs.
Dominic Grieve, who succeeded David Davis as shadow Home Secretary last year has been given the justice portfolio. Whether there is any demotion here depends on whether Jack Straw, the real Justice Minister, thinks his post is inferior to the Home Office brief held by Jacqui Smith. Either way, Mr Grieve fits the justice brief as well as his shadow Home Office duties. But his move enables Chris Grayling – another reliable performer – to be deservedly rewarded with the Home Office portfolio. Mr Grayling has risen effortlessly through the front-bench ranks since he entered Parliament in 2001.
Some on the right might be disappointed that Mr Clarke's return has not been balanced by a recall of David Davis to the front-bench. Mr Davis neither sought nor was offered such an opportunity. Whether he would have accepted any post is doubtful. But this is a moment for all good men and women to come to the aid of the party. That Ken Clarke has recognised this is a tribute to Mr Cameron's determination and readiness for government.Reuse content