Ken Clarke - 'I'm not naturally gloomy. I try to be an optimist'

MT ARCHIVE: Now Ken Clarke is back as shadow business secretary, can he land any punches on Peter Mandelson?

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 14 Jul 2014

Ken Clarke resigned as minister without portfolio today ahead of a pre-election cabinet reshuffle by David Cameron, bringing to an end a frontbench career which has seen the 74-year-old stalwart serve in every Conservative government since 1972 and unsuccessfully challenge for the party leadership three times.

This interview is from MT's archive, and was first published in April 2009.

For all that Ken Clarke's formidable reputation as one of the biggest and most dangerous beasts in the political jungle precedes him, when you meet the man it's impossible not to sneak a quick peek at his footwear. Does he still sport those famous brown-suede Hush Puppies, symbol of his classless public appeal throughout the Thatcher and Major years?

The answer - at least today - is no. The last Tory chancellor of the exchequer (for it was he, even though he left office 12 years ago) is wearing loafers, and while they may be the right colour and material, they are svelte, Italian-looking, plutocratic.

What's going on? Has the professional 'man of the people', who always chose beer and sandwiches over champagne and canapes, and who got the job of minister for the inner cities in the third Thatcher government because he 'looked like he lived in one', cleaned up his act and gone upmarket?

Not much. Footwear aside, there's precious little evidence of any stylist having been let loose on Clarke's now-considerable physical presence. The suit is a decent one, but baggy and somewhat creased all the same. The tie, silk though it may be, is askew and has to be straightened for our photoshoot. His haircut is on the louche side for a Tory grandee, and you might expect a watchmender's son to have something flashier on his wrist than a Swatch.

The overall message is that while life on the backbenches may have afforded him a bit more time to devote to the lucrative non-exec circuit - he was deputy chairman of BAT for nine years as well as serving on the boards of Alliance Unichem, Foreign & Colonial and Independent News & Media, among others - he remains, at heart, a man of simple tastes and pleasures who enjoys life but is not unduly interested in the trappings of success.

The fact that those pleasures reach beyond the stuffy confines of Westminster into the wider world - most famously birdwatching and jazz - also helps Clarke stand out as one of the few contemporary politicians with a life outside politics.

But since January, he has been back on the opposition front bench as shadow business secretary, and that extensive hinterland has had to take a back seat. He has dropped all but one of his non-executive directorships (only INM now enjoys his services), put his jazz-club visits and ornithological jaunts on an austerity footing and cleared the decks for a far more bloodthirsty and punishing form of political sport: a sustained assault on Gordon Brown and his handling of the economic crisis.

Before we get into all that, he's a man who has lived through more than his fair share of economic turmoil - including the recession of the early '80s and 'Black Wednesday' in 1992, when the UK was kicked out of the ERM at an estimated cost of £3.5bn (his Cambridge friend Norman Lamont was in Number 11 at the time). He's also well known for his sangfroid in a crisis. How bad does he think things are going to get?

'I am not naturally gloomy. In fact, I try to be an optimist,' he says. 'But the fact is, I have come to believe that this recession will be long and deep - the longest and deepest of my lifetime, I suspect.

'Things were bad in the early '70s, the early '80s and the early '90s, but this one is the worst, and I am not sure we are at the bottom yet. I see no signs of recovery in any sector of the economy and, six months further into the real banking crisis, there is no sign whatever that any of the measures taken are really getting the credit markets working again.'

Crikey. That's a pretty bearish prognosis for someone of Clarke's usually glass-half-full disposition. Isn't there any good news out there for UK plc? 'Well, the Obama government is taking a monster gamble, which might work. But here the Government has produced far too many ill-prepared packages of announcements before they know how they are going to implement them. Some are sensible - like the recapitalisation of the banks last autumn - but others are very variable. They have burned their way through a lot of money already and the scale of the debt is mounting up alarmingly.'

Then there are the bankers who got us all into this mess in the first place. They have had a lot of muck thrown in their direction recently, and they will have to put up with a bit more yet, even from the traditionally City-friendly Conservatives. 'I think we are only just waking up to the scale of the folly of the international bankers and the complete inadequacy of the regulators in dealing with it,' he says.

This is vintage Clarke - expansive and confident, serious but delivered with the trace of a smirk and a twinkling eye. He's a natural communicator, great on the telly, potentially devastating at the despatch box. No wonder David Cameron wanted him back.

In the '80s, when the television manner of cabinet ministers was either aristocratic, patronising or both, Clarke's ability to breeze through interviews cracking jokes and generally sounding like a human being rather than a zealot was even more of a rarity. Even Mrs Thatcher - not exactly famous for her sense of humour - recognised his value as someone who could really get his message across.

Unfortunately for Clarke's career, she (along with other Tory notables) was frequently frustrated by the fact that his message and the party line were often poles apart. Although a natural Tory, Clarke likes to speak his mind, a habit that got him into trouble again recently, when he dared to suggest on live telly that, because of the burgeoning national debt, the Tories might not be able to honour their commitment to abolish inheritance tax on estates of less than £1m if they win the next election. His candour prompted a speedy correction from Tory HQ, a slap on the wrist for Clarke from his new masters.

The truth is that under Thatcher, Clarke was a journeyman, valued for his way with a soundbite and his appetite for tough pay negotiations (the ambulance drivers and the GPs were two of big scalps), but never regarded as 'one of us'.

He got his revenge by being the first minister to advise the Iron Lady to resign after her poor showing in the 1990 leadership contest.

He flourished under her successor John Major, becoming chancellor in 1993 and enjoying a four-year run of success as the economy picked up after the recession. He cut income tax and the proportion of GDP consumed by public spending, as well as reducing the budget deficit. He also cemented his reputation as the cabinet's bruiser, famously defending the PM from his own side by growling: 'Any enemy of John Major's is an enemy of mine.'

Perhaps it was the need for a bit of that menace that prompted Cameron to invite him back. It would certainly help the Tories to have someone on board capable of taking on Labour's own resurrected big-hitter, business secretary Peter Mandelson, and living to fight another day - something that poor old George Osborne has shown himself incapable of doing.

The Prince of Darkness is said to have been the source last October of the story that Osborne solicited a £50,000 donation from Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, in revenge for Osborne's leaking Mandy's alleged comments about Gordon Brown. The ensuing scandal left Osborne so badly mauled that one wag remarked: 'If you're going to hunt the big beasts, George, make sure you kill them with your first shot.'

It remains one of the enigmas of Clarke's career that although he has held more cabinet posts in more governments than most MPs can dream of, he has failed - no fewer than three times - in his ambition to lead his party. And that means no chance of becoming PM either, of course. It must be particularly galling when he reflects on the calibre of some of those who did lead the party, too - John Major, whose one full term in office was a lame-duck government from the start; William Hague, clever and capable but utterly inept in the dark arts of the media, which Clarke knows so well. And the less said about Iain Duncan Smith the better ...

One clue as to why may lie in his remarkably self-contained nature - great leaders need to be followed, and they expend huge amounts of energy making sure that they are. Clarke is content in his own skin and doesn't have that need. The breezy affability that goes down so well on TV is no affectation, but it is a kind of carapace, an impervious shell that none - or at least very few - may penetrate. Someone who gives away so little of himself is unlikely to arouse strong feelings - of loyalty or otherwise - in others.

Clarke rates Labour's own comeback king Lord Mandelson, whom he shadows, very highly. But he laments the fact that, because Mandelson is in the Lords, the two of them will never face each other across the floor.

'I do think that's a constitutional outrage,' he says, referring to the fact that when a minister is in the Lords they escape the questioning of their opposite numbers in the Commons. 'I like Peter. We come from the old-fashioned world where it is perfectly possible to be on good terms with your political opponents. I'd like to do a debate, a media confrontation with him if he could be persuaded to. The contrast in our styles would make it an entertaining spectacle.'

Go on, Peter, it couldn't be worse than having green custard chucked in your face.

The way Clarke tells the story of his own comeback, it happened almost by accident. 'As we got deeper into the crisis, I was having more conversations with David (Cameron) and particularly George (Osborne) about what we were doing and where we should go. We got on pretty well, and it ended up with David asking me back to get involved properly.

'If you'd asked me 12 months ago if I would be back in mainstream front-bench politics again by now, I would have said no. I was enjoying myself as a backbencher. But the fact is that we are faced with historic issues - it's hardly a dull time to be involved. The way things work out in the next three or four years will have a lasting effect on the shape of our politics, as well as the state of our economy. It's absolutely fascinating, and I would find it very difficult to stand aside.'

And yet Clarke remains a natural apostate - he is one of the MPs most likely to vote against his party. The decision to invite him back cannot have been easy - in fact, some say Cameron dithered over it for so long that the choice was effectively made for him.

But it's his stance on the EU and monetary union that really marks Clarke out as an incendiary figure in modern Tory politics. His unwavering support, first for the EU and then for the euro, put him increasingly at odds with mainstream Tory opinion, and cost him his best shot at the leadership, to boot - in 2001, when he lost to Iain Duncan Smith, despite his enormous popularity with the electorate.

Many of the Tory faithful despise him as a traitor to this day, recalling especially the occasion that he and Michael Heseltine shared a podium with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown for the 1999 launch of monetary union lobby group, Britain in Europe. For the Eurosceptic Tory majority, the message was clear: here was a man who preferred the company of like-minded enemies to that of his own party colleagues.

Given that neither he nor the party have changed their positions on Europe since, wasn't he the teensiest bit concerned about his reception when Cameron asked him to rejoin the front bench? 'We did have to discuss Europe,' he concedes, 'mostly because we knew other people would pay it a disproportionate amount of attention. We both know perfectly well that I am a Europhile and he is a Eurosceptic. But I thought it was absurd to say I couldn't get involved in George Osborne's economics team because we didn't agree on the euro. It's just not a live issue - it's off the agenda for sound practical and political reasons right now.'

But hang on a minute, don't the recession and the run on sterling make the euro look more attractive to British businesses? Not according to Clarke. 'No-one's going to take us into the euro now. I'm not sure they would even want us at the moment, anyway. If I sat down with Jean-Claude Trichet (president of the European Central Bank) in the midst of all this wild volatility and asked him about Britain joining the eurozone, he'd think I was crazy.'

Something that is on the agenda are those mega-buck bonuses, pensions and 'rewards for failure' paid to the likes of Northern Rock's former boss Adam Applegarth and ex-RBS chief Fred 'The shredded' Goodwin. Clarke concedes that they've been taking a beating, and that there may well be more to come.

'The public mood recently has been such that if we'd set up some stocks in Trafalgar Square, huge crowds would have turned out to hurl abuse. It's all a bit of a distraction to the question of how we're going to get out of this mess, but I hope that the individuals concerned appreciate the depth of public feeling at the calm way they assume they're going to receive huge rewards for having presided over such calamitous mistakes.'

But he is a pragmatist and realises that it's the economic cycle as well as the failings of banks and bankers that have caused this recession. He thinks many of them will learn an important lesson about prudence as a result. 'For the next 15 years, the City will be full of people who are scarred by the memory of what is happening now. Their instinct for self-preservation will mean that those people will avoid making the same mistakes again.'

He's rather less indulgent when it comes to the regulators. Gordon Brown's tripartite system doesn't work, he says, having shown itself unable to anticipate or reduce the huge levels of systemic risk that sparked recession in the first place. A report commissioned for the party from gamekeeper-turned-poacher Sir James Sassoon (former Treasury adviser to Gordon Brown) suggests that the FSA's days will be numbered if the Tories get in, and that their 'new era' of regulation may begin with a return to the old system where regulatory responsibility lay with the Bank of England and the chancellor.

Clarke's own beginnings were provincial, but biographers disagree over exactly how modest. Were his parents Kenneth senior and Doris upwardly mobile members of the working classes, or did they start out middle class and stay that way? It's not a detail Clarke himself has much time for, and he usually brushes the question aside by saying 'No-one can accuse me of being too posh'. Not in comparison with the Old Etonian Cameron or indeed many of his other colleagues on the front bench, that's for sure.

What is not in doubt is that his roots in the post-war Nottinghamshire pit country run deep. He has been MP for the borough of Rushcliffe since 1970, making him one of the longest-serving members in the House - and he attended some pretty tough local schools before escaping via an assisted place at Nottingham High School to Cambridge, where he studied law. He was president of the Union, and a member of the so-called Cambridge Mafia, a remarkable group of political talent that included Michael Howard, Norman Lamont and John Selwyn Gummer.

But after Cambridge, as a young barrister, he returned to his fondness for drinking beer, playing snooker and watching his beloved Nottingham Forest. Perhaps he realised even then that his unpretentious manner - neither patronising the lowly nor fawning to the high-ups - was worth cultivating. He has been married to his wife Gillian since 1964 and has two grown-up children, Kenneth and Sarah, neither of whom is much interested in politics. 'They think their old man is crazy to have gone back,' he admits.

Returning to the economic crisis, he's cautiously in favour of the Government's programme of 'quantitative easing', although he feels that it's something of a last resort. 'It should make anyone who believes in sound money uneasy, but these are extraordinary times. When I see Ben Bernanke and Mervyn King advocating it, it tells me just how serious things have become. These men are not dangerous radicals, they are deeply conservative, with a small 'c'.'

The flipside of all this doom, gloom and disaster is the effect it will have on the next general election, now little more than a year away. That could be rather more to his liking. 'I try not to be complacent, but my own view is that Gordon (Brown) is finished and could not possibly win an election. He is trying to completely recast himself by advocating policies diametrically opposed to those of two years ago.

'The priority now is to build confidence in David and his team, so that they win a clear majority in the next election and are given their chance to govern. The life of whoever wins the election will be dominated by the need to nurture what will be a slow and fragile recovery. It will be a hard first term.'

If the Tories do win the next election, Clarke - by then approaching 70 - could reasonably expect to be offered a cabinet job as a reward. But if he wants one - and surely he must - he is experienced enough to realise that it's better not to seem too keen, at least in public. 'I am past the stage of the nervous young politician waiting by the electric telephone,' he jokes. 'But if David asks me, then, as of now, yes, I would like to return. It would be interesting to see how a cabinet works now in very different political circumstances to the last one I was involved in.'

Whether to offer him such a post will be another one of those tricky decisions that leaders have to take. Recalling a man like Clarke to help add some teeth and gravitas to an election campaign is one thing, but would Cameron really want him chucking his weight about in his first cabinet? This is someone, remember, who stood against Cameron in the 2005 leadership contest. You can't help thinking that it might just be a brown-suede-shod step too far.

THREE CHALLENGES FACING CLARKE

1. To dramatically improve his party's performance on the economic crisis

2. To court David Cameron so that a cabinet post will be his for the taking if the Tories win the next election

3. To do whatever it takes to get Peter Mandelson to agree to a live TV debate with him

CLARKE IN A MINUTE
1940: Born 2 July in Nottingham. Won assisted place at Nottingham High
School; studied law at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge
1970: Elected MP for south Notts constituency of Rushcliffe
1975: Opposed the election of Margaret Thatcher as Tory leader
1985: First cabinet post, secretary of state for employment
1988: Secretary of state for health
1990: Secretary of state for education
1992: Home secretary
1993: Chancellor of the exchequer
1997: Loses Conservative leadership election to William Hague...
2001: ...and then to Iain Duncan Smith
2005: Out of leadership race in first round. David Cameron wins
2009: (January) Back on opposition front bench as shadow business
secretary

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