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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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.