Clarke is an example to other Tories

The U-turn on secret courts shows that the Justice Secretary understands coalition government.

One is the Septuagenarian, jazz-loving secretary of state for Chillaxation. The other is the Home Secretary, whom people used to call a safe pair of hands (they’ve stopped that now). Who is the more effective minister?

Easy. It’s Ken Clarke. Because he gets coalition government.

Contrast the progress on the two parts of the Queen's Speech that had "Tory policy" written all over them – the snoopers' charter and the plan for so-called "secret courts".

Now the former has a mountain of civil liberties issues attached – but was handled by everyone’s favourite liberal Tory, Clarke. While many on the Tory right like to portray him as a bumbling, out-of-touch loose cannon (can’t think why), isn’t it interesting how he’s engaged with the issues, heard the arguments, listened to the reservations raised by Nick Clegg in his letter to other members of the cabinet. And now he’s produced proposals that meet the concerns expressed, including notably that judges (not ministers) will decide when the new powers can be used and that they will not apply to inquests.

It’s not perfect – even Clarke himself says so. But it’s a hell of a lot better than it was. And the perfect example of how Lib Dems in government can make bad policy better.

Contrast that to the snooping bill. Looked after by Theresa May, there appears to be no such accommodation made. Instead we’ve had the usual cry of "you just don’t understand’. And as a result, the bill is in abeyance, moved from full to draft status in the Queen's Speech. To my knowledge, those draft proposals still have not been circulated to members of the Home Affairs Select Committee for review (I’m told this document that circulated after the Queen's Speech is nothing like the draft). Lib Dems, led by the redoubtable Julian Huppert, are up for a fight and there’s a steadfast determination to ensure nothing passes that increases the powers of RIPA.

The snoopers' charter is going to suffer the death by a thousand amendments.  And May is going to run very fast to go backwards.

Its funny. The Tory right are still convinced that they won the last election, that they should be free to invoke all the legislation they want. They’re wrong. If they want to make progress, they need to work with us, not fight us, and expect their legislation to be made more liberal, not less. I don’t expect the Lib Dems to get much credit for it from New Statesman readers. But I promise you – without us acting as a Tory brake, things would be a hell of a lot worse.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories