Featured, Interviews | 17th April 2015

Ken Clarke interview: “The iron of the Treasury has entered my soul”

The Tory MP and former Chancellor on how politics has changed, the dangers of unfunded spending pledges, and how his party is “too right-wing”.

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Ken Clarke has a pint in his hand, a blue rosette on his chest and a copy of the Times under his arm. He is waiting for me at the bar of a breezy pub in his constituency called the Stratford Haven. An etching of Shakespeare peers out from its sign, squinting as the sun shines over Nottinghamshire.

The Tory MP for Rushcliffe is best known for serving as Chancellor under John Major in 1993-97, but his government career has spanned three different cabinets – those of Major, Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron – and he has served as Home Secretary and Health Secretary. He has been an MP for 45 years, and is running again this time round – but for the last time, he expects – at the age of 74.

Clarke is a self-confessed “political anorak”, which is why he’s running again, although he has now retired from frontbench politics. By the time he left cabinet during Cameron’s reshuffle last summer, he had served in government far longer than anyone else there.

Although he’s a top political veteran ­– he even describes himself as such in the first line of our interview – he reminds me more of a mischievous schoolboy setting out on an exciting adventure. He looks the part with his floppy hair and the way he frequently scrunches up his face in merriment when amused. But it’s also his honest cheekiness – the way he cannot resist saying what he thinks – that adds to his youthful persona.

As he munches on gammon, egg and chips, he reflects on how campaigning and parliamentary politics has changed over the years. He became an MP in 1970 and has been commenting with enjoyable candidness on politics ever since. As a stalwart europhile, he maintains that it was his pro-European stance that stopped him winning the Tory leadership on three occasions: 1997, 2001, and 2005. He was the more experienced candidate each time, and popular with the public to boot.

He laments that, “no one seems to be able to win elections nowadays. I belong to the Conservative party that usually won elections! Before 1992, the Conservative party had been the national governing party of the country for most of my lifetime. And most elections I fought the Conservative party had won. And now we haven’t been able to win an election for 23 years.”

And why is that?

“Well, it’s become much too right-wing,” he replies, bluntly. “Which I hope David will continue to seek to redress in coming times.”

When Clarke left the cabinet, it was a reshuffle defined as a purge of the Tory “wets”. Other Europe-friendly, moderate, One Nation Tories lost their places at the cabinet table, including the then Attorney General Dominic Grieve. Clarke calls his own retirement a “coincidence”, but is baffled by Grieve’s departure:

“I don’t know why Dominic was removed,” he rumbles. “He was an excellent Attorney General. I just don’t know. I don’t know why Dominic was asked to leave the government. I personally thought Dominic was doing an excellent job and ought to have been promoted. He would’ve been an excellent Lord Chancellor.”

Clarke sees the coalition as having been “extremely successful”, but fears his party would be unable to form a future government with the Lib Dems.

“I’d be quite content with a future Tory/Lib Dem coalition, if we drew up a programme in a sensible fashion with the same degree of pragmatic compromise as we did before,” he says. I’m sure David Cameron will be relieved to hear that because I think David Cameron and Nick Clegg will have much more difficulty in persuading their respective parliamentary parties to sign up to a coalition this time… the right-wing of the Conservative party and the leftish element of the Liberal party are not eager to go back into coalition with their former partners.”

One thing Clarke’s europhile credentials make clear is that he opposes calling an in/out referendum on Britain’s EU membership. “I’m of the generation of politicians who have never been in favour of referendums. The parliament I was elected to, about Tony Benn and two others were the only people who thought a referendum was a sensible way of running the modern state,” he says. “I’m glad to say that they [Labour] have firmed up in their resistance to a referendum.”

Aside from Ukip pressure, was Cameron simply attempting to make his troublesome eurosceptic backbenchers quieten down about Europe by pledging a referendum?

“Yes!” he chuckles.

But has it worked?

“It’s had a mixed…” he trails off. “Well, yeah, the motive was to stop the party having this interminable debate and get them to shut up about it. So we could get on with dealing with more serious problems. I’ll be diplomatic, as we’re in an election campaign, but it seemed to have a mixed success of calming them down.”

And speaking of the election campaign, Clarke has noticed a great deal of change in how parties rally support since he started out.

“I’m campaigning in the way I always have; it’s very difficult to persuade a veteran like me not to campaign in the traditional fashion,” he tells me. But although he enjoys doorknocking the most, he sees it as “less valuable as a use of your time than it was many years ago”.

Another transformation he’s seen is, “the detachment to the much bigger proportion of the electorate than used to be the case. But that goes to the wider problem; the problem of western democracy nowadays. How do you get it to work when you can’t engage a cynical and distrustful public? This is a problem everywhere from the United States all the way through to Romania really.”

Clarke puts disengagement partly down to the recession and people’s experience of hardship. And he has some rather strong words for his party on the subject of fixing the economy. Although he is a keen admirer of George Osborne, and calls him one of the ministers “who has done the best departmental job”, he’s sceptical about the recovery, almost echoing Labour’s language on the subject.

“We still have not created a rebalanced, modern, competitive economy, which can start producing sustainable rises in living standards and employment laws, and I think it is the single biggest issue affecting the country at the moment – that’s my genuine view.”

He feels the Tories are wise to put the economy at the heart of their campaign, but points out: “You do need to campaign, and talk about the economy in a different way, you can’t take anything for granted. People want quicker solutions, simple solutions.

“As the recession caused people to be less well-off than they hoped to be in practically every quarter of society, they are resentful about the sitting government and about politicians who they think should’ve solved it all by now.

He adds: “There are other things, education and training. Getting a rebalanced economy isn’t just debt. Debt and deficit is a precondition. It’s education reform, skills training, apprenticeships, the science and technology budget, reforming corporate taxation. Now, you can’t win votes on all those, but they are the things you should remind people of to keep the tone right of the campaign, which is continued economy recovery.

“We’ve got a very good recovery at the moment, but it’s very fragile and can soon be swept away if we start doing silly things.”

In the final weeks of the campaign, his party has been accused of making a flurry of unfunded spending commitments. It has promised extra funding for the NHS, an increase in free childcare, and extending Right to Buy without properly costing such measures. Clarke recalls his time in the Treasury when warning against giving out “blank cheques”.

“I took over a fiscal problem,” he says of his time as Chancellor. “Not as bad as George’s [Osborne], and my four years were dominated by a constant drive to control public expenditure and to get back to a balanced budget with a surplus, which I succeeded in doing, but it was wading in blood even in those days. Year on year public spending cuts.

He continues: “All the lobbies were saying ‘this is the end of civilisation as we know it if we don’t have x million pounds’. At election times, as financial minister you’ve got to try and stop your colleagues giving in to too many of them…

“It remains to be seen how whatever government you elect is going to be able to provide those resources. Signing up to blank cheques for any of these lobbies – what really matters is to make sure the money is spent in such a way that you maximise the beneficial output for the public.

“I would no more give a blank cheque to the BMA than I would give a blank cheque to the generals. The iron of the Treasury has entered my soul. Year by year I would sit down and say ‘How exactly are you going to spend it? What went wrong with what you were supposed to be doing with it last year?’”

Since Clarke was the “Big Beast” at the top of British politics, our response to politicians has also changed in his view. He decries what he labels “the celebrity culture” in the press, which fixates on people’s personalities.

“The public debate and the media, which is becoming increasingly celebrity culture, rather hysterical, sensational, and reduces the whole thing to theatre,” he says of media-dominated politics.

“Everybody’s election campaigns are presidential, everything’s attributed to the party leader. What matters is how the party leader eats a hamburger and all this type of thing. I mean, it does switch the public off.”

I mention how his party appears to believe it’s electorally beneficial to attack Ed Miliband’s personality.

“Yes, with some people, yeah,” Clarke concedes. “That’s if you buy this notion that it’s all celebrity culture.”

The Defence Secretary Michael Fallon was recently condemned for lashing out at Miliband for having “stabbed his own brother in the back”.

“Well. I won’t get onto that,” says Clarke, looking down at his plate. “But personally I disapprove of personal attacks on your opponents. I’ve never done that. I also think it costs you votes. If either side goes in for personal attacks on the other side.”

Clarke is eager to point out that he doesn’t “have any time for politicians who spend all their time moaning about the press”. But he does find it tiresome that “we don’t have problems anymore, we only have crises”, and fears that the public “are switched off” because of all the media hysteria.

It’s worth imagining how today’s media would have covered Clarke as a young minister. A lifelong jazz fan – even now, he plays Thelonious Monk in the car – he used to go straight from Whitehall to late-night sessions at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in Soho.

“I didn’t get out of the habit of going to Ronnie Scott’s for quite a few years,” he recalls. “I used to drop my red box off at home, I didn’t allow the government car to hang around waiting for me. I’d get him to drop me off at Ronnie’s, and I’d get a taxi home whenever I left Ronnie’s, and then I’d do the red box before I went in in the morning. Only for a few years, two or three years, and then even I found this was a way of life that was going to kill me soon, you know?”

He finds it an “absolute pleasure” no longer to be going home to a red box of paperwork. He used to tackle his red box by night, with a cigar and some brandy. Now, he grins, “I read a good book with a cigar and brandy.”

So what happens to a veteran who wants to soldier on? The famous saying that old soldiers “just fade away” doesn’t suit Clarke at all.

“This parliament’s my last parliament and I’m going to enjoy being a cavalier, maverick backbencher,” he chuckles. And it looks like he’s started already.