Praise Ken Clarke could have done without

Reminders of 1993 European rescue will prove unhelpful.

In politics there are hostile and unhelpful interventions; friendly and helpful interventions. Sometimes, however, hostile interventions prove helpful and friendly interventions prove unhelpful.

Alan Milburn's description of the coalition's watered-down plan for the NHS as a "car crash" -- because it is not Blairite enough -- was undoubtedly hostile but is unlikely to do Nick Clegg and co any harm when it comes to Liberal Democrat grassroots. Similarly, Tony Blair's recent book-punting reappearance and his urging of Ed Miliband to stay the reforming course may not do the Labour leader much harm in the long run.

Today Justice Secretary Ken Clarke is the subject of praise he could probably do without. He's already under fire from the right of his party and from the mid-market tabloids for his apparently lily-livered approach to law and order, and now a Eurocrat from Luxembourg has just reminded everyone what fine European Clarke is, saving the continent's currency project from premature collapse in the early/mid-1990s.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the current president of the eurogroup and a veteran of nearly 100 EU summits, charts the intervention in the summer of 1993 when Clarke had been Chancellor of the Exchequer for just a few months. According to Juncker the European Monetary System (a precursor to the Euro) was in deep trouble and France was plotting to kick both Germany and Holland out of the system, when Clarke intervened.

Clarke came and organised [a] secret meeting. If you go, he told me, everything will collapse. You will never get this thing again. There will be no currency union. But I would like that we can join it one day

Today Europe isn't the politically divisive issue it often is for the Conservative Party but that doesn't mean it won't return as such. For example, there has been disquiet among Eurosceptic Tory MPs for six months over David Cameron's offers to bailout out single currency countries without holding a referendum. A taste of things to come, perhaps.

And a reminder, if needed, of what Clarke's brand of Europhilia does to his party is provided in "Decline & Fall", Chris Mullin's second volume of diaries, published in paperback next month. Mullin's entry for 18 October 2005 reads:

Walked in from Kennington via Courtney Street. A gaggle of photographers outside Ken Clarke's house, waiting for him to show his face. Later we heard that he had been eliminated in the first round of the Tory leadership election. From our point of view, a pity. From theirs, sensible. He would have split the party from top to bottom. It's beginning to look as though David Cameron is going to come out on top, which could give us a problem in due course.

 

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.