Ken Clarke exclusive: Boris vs Thatcher, never admit mistakes, handling stress

Freshly retired, the former big beast of Conservative politics offers his unique view on leadership, in the first of two interviews with Management Today.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 27 Nov 2019

After nearly 50 years in politics, how do you spend the official day of your retirement? For Ken Clarke, it was catching up on all the reading that had been neglected while dealing with the rigours of statecraft. 

The bookmarked copy of Ted Heath's authorised biography that Management Today spots in his Oval home suggests that Clarke has already started on the backlog. 

An endearing and sometimes divisive figure, famous for cigar smoking, a love of jazz music and commitment to free market economics with a social conscience, Clarke knew he wanted to be an MP while at primary school. 

He has no explanation for what started his life-long love affair with politics - an interest he combines with his other-lifelong passions of cricket, football and trainspotting - other than a fascination with reading his father’s newspaper while a small boy in the Derbyshire pit village of Langley Mill.

He was called to the bar after graduating from Cambridge’s Caius college, and entered Parliament as MP for Rushcliffe in 1970. The first few years were spent "living on the midnight train from Euston" as he balanced the rigours of parliament with his legal practice in Birmingham.

He would go on to hold positions in practically every government department. The most rewarding he says was health secretary under Margaret Thatcher, where he was responsible for implementing controversial internal market reforms to the NHS; he also had a nearly four-year spell as chancellor of the exchequer for John Major. 

While in opposition in the early noughties he embarked on a business career, gaining FTSE 100 board positions at British American Tobacco, F&C and pharma giant Alliance Unichem before it merged with Boots in 2006. 

His life-long commitment to Europe has seen him become a strong critic of Brexit, which culminated with him being thrown out of the Conservative parliamentary party along with 20 other MPs who voted against Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal. He retired from Parliament shortly after Johnson called an election in November. 

Now an avid observer of an election campaign he describes as "a complete shambles", Clarke reflects on his five decades in government. 

Dealing with stress

"It’s extremely difficult to control your work life balance if you have a serious political career. As a minister you work phenomenal hours. The reason I didn’t burn out? I’m very laid back, I don’t suffer from stress. Some people can get very hurt by the rollercoaster of politics - you have to acquire a bit of a rhino hide. 

"The other reason is that I just enjoyed both my political and legal career like mad. It was a privilege to be paid for doing things that I would have done anyway." 

On leadership

"Great leaders have a clear view of what they believe to be in the national interest. They need to decide what actions to take to further those aims and need the political skills to do it. 

"As I’m a one-nation, rather left-wing Conservative it surprises people when I explain my admiration for Margaret Thatcher. We had a pretty robust relationship, but she was a conviction politician and while she wasn’t right on some things I think her convictions were vindicated on many things. She took a medium-term view -it worked Parliament to Parliament, but we always got re-elected at the end of term. 

"She’d lost her touch by the end and was flying by the seat of her pants; I think she got rather carried away by the hubris of it all. Ten years as Prime Minister is probably the maximum permitted dose for adults - that probably applies to most CEOs of major companies as well." 

Preparing to retire

"I told my Conservative Association [in Rushcliffe, Nottinghamshire] that I did not intend to stand after the 2015 election. Then Theresa May called the unnecessary election in 2017 so I decided that I might risk a couple of extra years - ever since then I knew that I was going to retire so it was not really a great crisis of decision. 

"I haven’t avidly prepared to retire, but after Christmas 2018 it dawned on me that I should have made more preparations. We had plenty of notice that this election was coming so I was able to wade into the political debate over the summer knowing perfectly well that it would be my last. 

"I have not yet planned any new enthusiasm, and I have a diary that is still quite crowded.

Everybody has to face up to the fact that eventually, if you've got any sense, you retire; sooner or later you're not going to be able to do the job properly."

Regrets

"I always say that politicians should never admit their mistakes. In most walks of life it is the sensible and dignified thing to do; in politics it is reckless because your opponents will never let you forget it.

"I've made u-turns in my time but not on anything huge or with lasting significance. I would say if you make a u-turn just do it, don’t faff about, don’t abandon party policy and then say that nothing has changed.

"But no there's no terrible regret, there are odd things that I wish I could have done, not that I had the chance, but nothing hugely significant. Which is very self satisfying."

On Boris Johnson

"Boris and Trump have a lot in common. They’re larger than life personalities, they’re therefore not seen to be politicians in the normal sense. Their policies are simple and uncomplicated and neither would be insulted by me saying that they lack an eye for detail. 

"They both appeal to the angry protest vote and meet the anger of the public by blaming others - that would have been disastrous politically 40 or 50 years ago, but today it meets the public mood. 

"Boris always asserted to me publicly and privately that he is a one-nation-liberal-with-a-small-L-conservative; he’s stopped professing that now as the election has progressed. He wasn't an extreme Brexiteer until he made this decision to represent Leave suddenly during the referendum campaign - he had never been in favour before and so is slightly trapped by that. 

"He is more of a CEO, he’s not a hands-on details man. I think he is at his best when he appoints people he wants and lets them get on it." 

The secret to a successful career in politics

"I don’t like to give patronising advice to people - it’s pompous and a great danger. When people ask me what do you need to succeed in politics I’ll say one thing above all else, luck.

"That’s the great fascination of politics, you can never predict what’s going to happen. so you have to be prepared to react quickly enough. But above all you need luck." 

Keep an eye out for the second part of Management Today’s interview with Clarke, in which he’ll discuss why he thinks Brexit happened, who is the real party for business and why bosses have a responsibility to ensure that everyone sees the benefit of their wealth.

Image credit: Oli Scarff / Staff

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