Leading article: A big beast at home in the jungle

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The Independent Online

It is not hard to imagine the agonising that has gone on in the upper echelons of the Conservative Party about whether to bring back Kenneth Clarke. The former Chancellor warrants the description "big beast" simply by virtue of his positions in governments past. But he is not one of those whose distinction has been frozen in time; the description remains valid, more than a decade after he retired to the backbenches.

This is, first, because his tenure at the Treasury remains highly regarded – something that cannot be said of all former Chancellors. It is, second, because he is a doughty Commons performer – someone whom fellow MPs crowd the chamber to hear. And it is, third, because his popularity in the Commons extends to the country at large. Mr Clarke speaks plain English and he is gifted with a common touch; he is a politician voters relate to.

For all these reasons, Mr Clarke can only be an asset to a Shadow Cabinet which is open to criticism for being lightweight in the Commons and short on economic expertise. With the economy likely to be the crucial battleground of the next election – whenever it is called – Mr Clarke gives the Conservatives someone qualified and effective in tackling Gordon Brown on his record. His bluff manner also dilutes the sense of privilege that attends to David Cameron and his immediate entourage.

The return of one or more big beasts, though, could spell trouble for lesser inhabitants of the jungle – not only Labour ministers whom the Conservatives would like to see devoured. Mr Cameron may have hesitated about recruiting a past – and perhaps future – rival. He will also have been wary of Mr Clarke's pro-Europe views – not only because he does not share them, but because Mr Clarke's very presence on the frontbench could revive the divisive subject of Europe and generate new talk of party splits.

But for a party leader who needs a strengthened pre-election line-up against a Government reinvigorated by the return of Peter Mandelson, the risk is well worth taking. With sufficient courage, and sufficient confidence in his own leadership, Mr Cameron can afford to invite the big beast back.