Politics - John Kampfner wants Charles Clarke to try charm

Charles Clarke may have courage and conviction, but if he is to sort out the many problems that awai

Close to two years ago, I went to see Charles Clarke in his lair in the Home Office. We had a garrulous early evening chat, alternating between his views on criminal justice, lawyers, the role of society and the media, what it means to be a Blairite and whether or not he should shave off his beard.

His candour and his willingness to take people on impressed me. Political journalism, he said, was corrupting open discussion. A media that sought only controversy was traducing difficult policy decisions.

My interview was given front-page treatment by the Guardian, under a headline "Tip for the top". This man, I felt, was different. Politics and fashion go in cycles. Squeaky-clean Blair represented an end of millennium obsession with youth and modernity. There would in time be something appealing about someone like Clarke as prime minister.

That was then. He isn't quite a household name now, but Clarke is finally getting the profile he deserves as the new Education Secretary. This is, as one Downing Street official puts it, "Charles's big chance - if he can sort out the inter-personals then he's got a good chance of making it work".

But the inter-personals are the trouble. They will count for a lot in Clarke's new job. Whatever it might think of public-sector workers, the government now concedes that it has to take them with it as it reforms. Over the next month, Clarke and his team will put the finishing touches to reforms of higher education, having to settle the highly contentious questions of top-up fees and graduate taxes versus student loans. The bigger challenge is to determine just what "the post-comprehensive" era in secondary schools means.

Clarke will need to add charm to his customary courage and conviction if he is to win the battles with Downing Street over selection, with the Treasury over future funding - and with the teaching profession. His record over the past few months begs the question: can he do it?

Tony Blair's people believe he did a good job as party chairman, rejuvenating morale, encouraging local organisations to engage more in debate. When it came, however, to the desperately difficult balancing act of relations with the unions, the picture is mixed.

Clarke and David Triesman, the soft-spoken general secretary, played a "good cop, bad cop" routine, but a five-year deal guaranteeing funding from the unions continues to elude them. Which brings me to one vignette I use purely by means of illustration - journalists should not complain about their treatment - of one side of Clarke.

One evening in early July, as the wine was flowing at Millbank Tower at the launch party of Labour's new think-tank, I ran into him. His first words to me were along the lines of: "What shit are you serving up next week?" I politely inquired which particular piece he objected to. "All of them," he replied. "All you write is lies."

It transpired that Clarke was miffed by a column I had written, my first as the New Statesman political editor, in which I had set out the extent of Downing Street's frustration at the unions, and their perceived use of funds to the party as a bargaining chip over policy. Nobody in or around No 10 complained or challenged the veracity of the piece.

With Labour Party press officers shuffling their feet awkwardly, I challenged Clarke to put on the record his claim that I had made the story up, or to withdraw his accusation. He mumbled something approximating to a retraction and stumbled away.

Compare that with the demeanour of Clarke's successor as party chair, John Reid. Reshuffle comment tended to lump them together as representing a burly, middle aged, balding, male revivalism. And yet Reid is very different. A few years ago, he would be frequently given the task of coming on to the Today programme to respond to an item I had done. He was always robust - sometimes he was doing it because he had to, sometimes because he genuinely disagreed with me - but he was always meticulously polite and professional.

New Labour was created out of the psychosis of opposition during the Kinnock years, when all forms of criticism were seen as part of an enemy conspiracy. This Leninist view of political management, with its dependence on small cells and ritual denunciation of anyone who dared to dissent, reached its peak in the run-up to the 1997 election and for a couple of years after.

Most of those around Blair soon changed their ways. They realised that a more mature political debate, through the media and beyond, would be required if public confidence was to be restored to the process - and that courtesy is an integral part of it. John Reid understood this long ago, and for that reason he will do well in his job.