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Ken Clarke: A Political Giant Mistreated by his Youngers and Lessers - Spectator Blogs

5 September 2012

12:22 AM

5 September 2012

12:22 AM

Say this for David Cameron’s autumn reshuffle: it hasn’t unravelled as quickly or spectacularly as George Osborne’s last budget. Hurray for that. But nor has it been deemed a grand success. See Telegraph writers here, here and here for evidence of that.

If you want to make a difference – that is, if you wish the general public to sit up and think, By Jove, he’s finally got it – you need to defenestrate an admiral or two. A reshuffle that leaves the Great Offices of State as they were cannot pass that test. Which means, I’m afraid, that only sacking George Osborne would have made this a memorable reshuffle. Like Tony Blair before him, Cameron may yet regret not dealing with his Chancellor.

Iain Martin got to the guts of it with his characteristic faux-puzzled under-statement:

This Government is in a hole because of the economy. The Chancellor is about as popular as Fred Goodwin. But the reshuffle happened in a different space from that reality, so the watching public (such as it cares) will see George Osborne, the main guy associated with the biggest problem, still in place and standing there grinning as though he’s just won the lottery. This, him still being there, will puzzle, but possibly not surprise, a great many people.

Indeed. Meanwhile, Ken Clarke has been demoted and will serve out his remaining days in government as Minister without Portfolio/Minister for the Today programme. I dare say this will please so-called “Mainstream Conservatives”. It will strike everyone else – at least those paying attention – as mildly bonkers. And unfair.

The Tory leadership appears to view Ken as some kind of eccentric uncle of whom they’re fond of despite suspecting they shouldn’t be, and of whom they are embarrassed but not quite to the point of getting rid of him forever.  And so he has been shoved off to a non-job in which, it is supposed, at least he can do no harm.

What a sad, even shabby, end to one of the great political careers of modern times. You doubt this? Think again. Ken’s first government post came 40 years ago when he joined the Whips office. After the blessed Margaret became Prime Minister he served a couple of tours in junior ministerial positions before his promotion to the cabinet. Since then he has been, in order, Paymaster General, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State for Health, Secretary of State for Education and Science, Home Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary of State for Justice & Lord Chancellor.

When Team Dave arrived in Downing Street, old Ken had more government experience than the new Prime Minister, Chancellor, Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary and Defence Secretary combined. In an era that over-values youth his experience of how government actually sodding works should have been prized more highly.

I have no notion (or, to be honest, memory) of his performance as Paymaster or at the Duchy of Lancaster but he has been a success in every other post. Those Tories who think him an incorrigibly wet old softy might care to remember his bruising battles with the unions when he was at health and education. He wasn’t afraid of making enemies and many of them were the right ones too.

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Though some have never forgiven him for it, Clarke was the first cabinet minister to tell the Lady that her time was up. If nothing else his role in thwarting the idea of Prime Minister Kinnock deserves more praise than he has been granted.

And Clarke was, by some distance, the most successful Chancellor of the past 25 years. True, this is not a severely high bar to clear; nevertheless it is one worth clearing. Indeed, you can make a semi-plausible argument that Clarke only ceased to be Chancellor in 1999. Though he did other things in his first two years in office, hindsight suggests one of the most important things Brown did was stick to Clarke’s spending plans. After that, well, not so much.

Yes, yes, yes, there was the Europe thing, and the Whatabouters and Betteroffouters will never forgive Clarke that or allow anyone else to forget it either. But that ship sailed long ago and Ken, like most ordinary people, has let it pass. Even if you think Clarke hopelessly wrong on Europe it’s a mistake to distill an entire career to just that.

Why does Ken matter? Because he had, indeed has, a hinterland. The Hush Puppies, the cigars, the real ale, the jazz and the cricket are more than fripperies or mere stylistic adornment. They gave Clarke bottom. You might – indeed many did – disagree with him but these things helped make him seem a man of some substance who had – and enjoyed – a life beyond politics. He hasn’t needed to pretend.

Clarke has been a politician and a Member of Parliament since 1970, but he’s never seemed a career politician in quite the same manner as many of his successors and younger colleagues so often seem to be.  Authenticity is a rare commodity in modern politics and Clarke is one of the few who has that unforced, plainly evident, quality. It helps that he can be candid and admit mistakes too.

And this is important because it helps create the conditions for good politics. You can’t achieve much if people will not listen to you with at least some modicum of respect. Modern politics is, in part, a sales business and it’s daft to pretend it ain’t.

Of course there was never any chance that Cameron might sack Osborne. But I fancy there are plenty of people who would listen to Chancellor Clarke with greater attention and respect than they are minded to afford Chancellor Osborne.

Poor Osborne. He is damaged goods. Even when he is right he will not persuade voters that he is correct. They doubt his good intentions and, alas, are primed to think the worst of everything he does, ascribing the darkest of motivations to even Georgie’s most innocent remarks or ploys.

If Osborne handed a five pound note to every voter in the land most would reach for their wallets to check he hadn’t found a way of removing a ten pound note on the sly.

This is, I’m sure, unfair. Nevertheless Osborne has a problem. People have ceased listening to him. They doubt his good faith. They do not trust him. Nor, unfortunately, do they think him an honourable man. Politicians don’t have to be liked but they must be respected. Osborne is not.

Clarke is, however, and not just because he’s at that pensionable age at which even the buggers you always hated become surprisingly-entertaining-grand-old-men whose appearances on Question Time are treated with an indulgence they would never have been granted back in their terrifying, divisive pomp. No, I fancy there’s life in old Ken yet and that, though one should be wary of  siren calls suggesting one man can transform a government’s fortunes, he’d still be a better Chancellor than the man presently occupying the Treasury.

If nothing else, people would listen to Clarke. That may not be quite half the battle in politics but it’s a pretty decent start. A still-callow cabinet might do well to reflect on the lessons of Ken Clarke’s career and appeal.

 

 

 

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  • In2minds

    “I have no notion (or, to be honest, memory) of his performance as
    Paymaster or at the Duchy of Lancaster but he has been a success in
    every other post”

    Wrong.
    I have detailed memories of his time as a Junior Transport Minister
    and he was a disaster.

  • http://twitter.com/mackydee1977 Macky Dee

    I actually disagree with George Osbourne being derided as much as you say he is. He is recognised as having the most difficult AND thankless job in British politics. We did our best to get a maj tory govnmt in on the basis that the chancellor will just stick to the horrible plan of cutting the deficit and becoming one of the most derised men in politics but still sticking to it. He has fallen foul of his own budget and u-turns. Most people i speak with still have as much respect for him as ever because they wont just jump on the easy bandwagon that is- Blame the Chancellor when: GDP contracts, unemployment rises, borrowing more… The one thing he will never do (and this is what sticks in peoples minds) is he wont borrow his way out of debt like Balls and Milli would do.

  • http://twitter.com/mackydee1977 Macky Dee

    I actually disagree with George Osbourne being derided as much as you say he is. He is recognised as having the most difficult AND thankless job in British politics. We did our best to get a maj tory govnmt in on the basis that the chancellor will just stick to the horrible plan of cutting the deficit and becoming one of the most derised men in politics but still sticking to it. He has fallen foul of his own budget and u-turns. Most people i speak with still have as much respect for him as ever because they wont just jump on the easy bandwagon that is- Blame the Chancellor when: GDP contracts, unemployment rises, borrowing more… The one thing he will never do (and this is what sticks in peoples minds) is he wont borrow his way out of debt like Balls and Milli would do.

  • http://twitter.com/LouMcCudden Louise McCudden

    I agree with most of this but I guess to people with very strong feeling on Europe, it IS worth “derailing” a career over it because ultimately it’s behind everything else – law, human rights, economic regulation, business/employment law, even tax and spending… so I do kind of understand why it is so central to some people’s concerns. I think some commentators (not Massie!) are a bit quick to dismiss criticisms of Europe which leads to lots of frustration and anger, and ultimately UKIP votes, in EU elections at least.

  • Mike

    Clarke was one of those Tories who entered politics post Suez and is early years were spent observing political decline, especially 1970-1974. I do not think Clarke went through national service. Clarke appears a product of Butskillism. Clarke has never outlined a clear and accurate method for national regeneration : instead Clarke has spent his years providing a cheery face for national decline. Like many of his background ( good grammar school, no foreign experience, service industry background) he appears embarressed about the UK’s involvement in the World outside of Europe. Clarke has never given the impression of thinking seriously about the Uk’s future. Clarke has the academic and emotional intelligence understand how to carve out a comfortable life for himself with minimal effort: he admitted to never reading European Treaties . Clarke has the cunning to realise his bluff and amenable character is very effective at brushing away difficult questions: Clinton and Blair have these qualities.

  • FF42

    Ken Clarke is arguably yesterday’s man, so shunting him off into the cabinet retirement home doesn’t matter much politically.

    On the other hand, Mr Clarke is popular with people who might vote Conservative but don’t always do so. If the Conservatives want to win elections decisively they need more people like him among the younger cohorts.I don’t see many of his like there, however.

    • http://twitter.com/mackydee1977 Macky Dee

      ‘Cos he is SO Pro-European – young people more than anyone else ask: Why do we even have ANY laws coming from Europe

    • http://twitter.com/mackydee1977 Macky Dee

      ‘Cos he is SO Pro-European – young people more than anyone else ask: Why do we even have ANY laws coming from Europe

  • Wessex Man

    I can’t believe the comments here, this ‘bloke’ in one self satisfied fat little bundle sums up the incompetent out of touch administrations since the days of Wilson and Heath. Quite how the old fogey has lasted this long, I’ll never know.
    Now all Cameron needs to do is get rid of prick me and I burst Pickles, two half brains, come light my fire, kitten boots and I boast to teenage girls. You know who they are Dave boy!

  • Douglas Carter

    It’s still mystifying to me that the public refuse to hail the man who placed VAT on home fuel as a hero. Why did the man who made home heating and lighting more expensive for everyone (…’…cos they do in yurrup..’…) not earn the many accolades from the hundreds of thousands of grateful pensioners who were impatiently awaiting such a development?
    VAT on home fuel was a work of populistic genius. Who could overlook that? It’s just beyond belief?

    • http://twitter.com/LouMcCudden Louise McCudden

      Very good point about fuel VAT!

  • Stinky Britches

    Ken Clarke: Bilderberg drone, EU stooge

  • PaulClieu

    The idea that Clarke was a great Chancellor is a myth.

    Clarke massively increased taxes on all successful people paid as employees by eliminating the cap on employers NI contributions. To small business owners with limited companies, he increased the tax from 40p to 53.8p on every pound earned. Even worse, he laughed on TV when he announced it.

    Clarke helped Major take the Conservative Party to its biggest ever defeat so far. Hardly the legacy of a great Chancellor.

    Clarke was wrong on the ERM, the EURO and the EU. He was wrong to increase taxes and wrong to allow Major to massively increase public spending.

    Clarke is also a vote loser on welfare, prison, immigration. Almost everybody who agrees with Ken is already a left wing Labour voter who would never ever vote Tory. Clarke drives away Right of Center voters in droves and can not attract left wing voters because they already have Labour and the LimpDems meeting their every needs.

    Clarke was poison in the 1997 election and he remains poison today.

  • gladiolys

    The biggest mistake the Tories made was not to elect Ken as leader. He would have won a majority in 2010 and would not have needed coalition partners.

    • M. Wenzl

      He’s too old though — that’s a big turn-off these days. Not only that, but the values he represents constitute such a minority in the Tory party that he might as well join the ‘Orange’ wing of the Lib Dems.

  • s_o_b

    Clicked Post too soon…..
    I was going to say that there are a number of people who have more weight and experience to them who would make better Chancellors than Osborne or Clarke. Ken’s inability to see that the EU is the roadblock to some of the economic solutions we need currently, imho, disqualifies him totally. Redwood on the other hand has been much aligned for being right!

  • s_o_b

    Agree with much of what is written here but one statement rather leapt off the screen at me: “…..he can be candid and admit mistakes too.”
    Really?
    I have no recollection of Ken admitting to a single mistake, ever. Can any readers provide a verifiable example?
    Also, I think it is a bit much to casually brush the “Europe thing” so cavalierly to one side. For all Ken’s good points, and there are some, he has been completely and demonstrably wrong on one of the most important issues of the last and current generation, and to go back to my first point, I have yet to hear him acknowledge this.

  • Boo80

    The Problem with Ken is that the Tories are a Coalition. If it was a pure Tory government he would be in Vince’s job, and providing a useful double act for the economy.

    My read of this shuffle is Cameron wants to return to this idea, and having him as the “minister for the Today programme” is a good one, because (as you pointed out) he has a fair bit of appeal.

    Yes this is technically a demotions, but given the breadth of his experience isn’t this the best use of his Talent?

  • KennyKoala

    I also agree. He might have some soft ideas but he has gravitas and a sense of humour, which is a neat trick to pull off. As Chancellor, he was deft and created confidence. We need someone like him again.

  • http://300wordtheses.blogspot.co.uk/ Gerry Dorrian

    Clarke was a good chancello, and I must applaud his taste in music. But the arrest of the Ferries for shooting burglars happened on his watch, if right at the end, and shows that in Great Britain criminals still have more rights than their victims, a situation that has pertained since 1997.

    • OldSlaughter

      The arrest following the release without charge? Is that really the best you can come up with?

  • http://twitter.com/chithecynic Chi The Cynic

    Couldn’t agree more. I’ve been wishing DC would make Old Ken his Chancellor ever since he took office. At least he’s still in the Cabinet, though I fear he’ll be the last voice of reason left.

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