Prime minister David Cameron has confirmed that Chris Grayling will become justice secretary in what was emerging as a comprehensive clear-out of ministers at the Ministry of Justice.

Earlier today Kenneth Clarke became a high-profile casualty of Cameron’s first major reshuffle since coming to office. The 72-year-old, who has held seven different cabinet positions since becoming a health minister in 1982, will be moved to minister without portfolio advising on economic issues.

Meanwhile, barrister and Conservative MP Oliver Heald replaced Edward Garnier as solicitor general while Damian Green MP replaced Nick Herbert as police minister.

In further announcements on Tuesday evening, junior posts at the MoJ were filled by two lawyers. Solicitor and Conservative MP Helen Grant was appointed joint parliamentary under secretary of state at the ministry and for Women’s and Equality issues while Jeremy Wright, barrister and Conservative MP, was appointed parliamentary under secretary of state, replacing Jonathan Djanogly.

The MoJ was unable to confirm Djanogly's departure, but the Hunts Post, a local newspaper in his constituency, reported that he had returned to the back benches.

Grayling (pictured), 50, a former BBC News producer, will be viewed as a surprise appointment by some, with no background in law.

His appointment is likely to be viewed as an attempt by Cameron to win favour with the right of his party. Grayling, MP for Epson and Ewell, delighted the party in opposition with his attacks on Labour ministers but has kept a lower profile since the 2010 general election, having upset gay rights campaigners when he seemed to suggest that bed and breakfast owners could turn away a gay couple.

Clarke’s two years at the ministry were dominated by the requirement to cut £2bn from its £9bn annual budget. Under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which largely comes into force from next April, legal aid was cut for most civil cases to save £350m a year.

Clarke defended the cuts, arguing that spending on legal aid was higher in England and Wales than anywhere else in the world. The Jackson reforms to civil litigation, following the report launched by Clarke’s predecessor Jack Straw, were also a key element of the past two years.

From next April, referral fees will be banned for all personal injury cases, whilst the reforms will also remove the recoverability of success fees and after-the-event insurance from losing defendants.

But Clarke’s attempts to reduce expenditure on prisons will be for many the abiding memory of his time in government. A proposal to reduce sentences by up to 50% for an early guilty plea upset many in the Conservative party, and the controversy was compounded when Clarke was forced to clarify comments made in an interview which appeared to suggest that some rapes were less serious than others.

In what was seen as a defeat for the justice secretary, Cameron later stated that cutting sentences by half would be ‘too lenient’. While Clarke’s critics accused him of too soft on crime, prison population has remained high throughout his tenure, with last week’s total of 86,708 just two fewer than the same time last year.

Other reforms during Clarke’s period in office included making squatting a criminal offence, reform of community sentences and launching an overhaul of the family justice system. He also oversaw the implementation of the Legal Services Act, which allowed non-lawyers or private equity investors a stake in law firms.