NS Interview - Charles Clarke
The war? Absolutely fine. Blair? He'll run and run. Howard? Pathetic. Absolutely nothing fazes the E
Charles Clarke invited me to see him because he thought I had become obsessed with Iraq. Talking to him about domestic issues, he thought, would do me good. In any case, like the New Statesman and much of the chattering class, I was completely wrong about the war.
So first we talk about the Budget. He tells me how "very pleased" he is with the money he has eked out of Gordon Brown for the next spending round. He tells me how, for the first time, the education department has responsibility for learning "from cradle to grave" and that extending nursery and childcare places for the under-fives will be one of the main pledges for Labour in the general election campaign. The consensus across government is that early intervention is essential to objectives such as improving school results in later life, curbing antisocial behaviour and eradicating child poverty. The Sure Start programme is focused on the poorest 20 wards in the UK, but after 2008 Clarke wants it extended. "I always resist the phrase 'the big idea'," he says. "It's certainly 'a big idea' and it's an important dividing line with the Conservatives."
Clarke recently criticised the variable quality of teaching. He admits that improvement in secondary education remains slow, especially in London. He, like Tony Blair, sees specialist schools, which now account for more than half of all schools nationally, as the key to better standards. I ask him about the well-publicised criticisms of Fiona Millar, former aide to Cherie Blair and partner of Alastair Campbell. She has complained of the polarisation in Britain's cities whereby wealthier parents monopolise places at higher-performing state or private schools, leaving local schools often overburdened with more difficult pupils. Clarke plays down the dispute, saying that, although specialist schools have the right to select up to one-tenth of their intake, 98 per cent have not done so. He says grammar schools are a very small minority and that faith schools do not generally select according to academic ability. "The challenge is to ensure that every secondary school in every community is an outstanding school," he says. "We believe that the comprehensive, or as the PM puts it, the post-comprehensive, is the right way to go."
One in five children in the capital goes to a paying school but the government, Clarke insists, is dealing with the problem. "It is an absolute outrage that London schools should be seen as worse than the national average when in fact they should be the leading schools in the country." The solution, he says, is "to make state schools more attractive rather than making private schools more unattractive". A few months ago, his schools adviser for London, Professor Tim Brighouse, proposed that university fees should be 10 per cent higher for children educated privately. Brighouse, Clarke says, is plain wrong. But he could not really say anything else. It is the kind of proposal that would send Blair into paroxysms of rage. "I don't believe we should penalise the child for the decisions of the father," says Clarke, whose father sent him to private school - Highgate in north London. He dismisses other punitive measures, such as the imposition of VAT on school fees, which he says would be in violation of European law.
Two months after the high drama of the university tuition fees vote, what lessons have been learned? "The main lesson is constantly to discuss and explain what the policies are," Clarke replies. The more Labour MPs realised how "fundamentally redistributive" the measures were, the more they came round to embrace them. It just took time. And yet Clarke had assured Blair in early December that he could win the vote any time. It was lucky for him, I suggest, that his boss ignored his advice. He lets the little dig wash over him. "The difference between Dec-ember and January was marginal." I have another go. He won in January only because his old friend Gordon baled him out by persuading his allies to call off their rebellion. "I don't think so," Clarke replies. "I know this is the theatre which goes on and is very entertaining." He admits to "a lot of arguments as the policy was forming", but assures me that the Chancellor "followed it all the way through" and that in any case not that many of the rebels were "pure Brownites".
It is halfway through the interview. Clarke has been his customary confident self, so it is time to bring up the war. I suggest we leave aside the rights and wrongs and confine ourselves to the question: how bad is the politics of Iraq? "I don't think it's at all bad. The trouble is, you have an opinion-forming class that is utterly preoccupied by it, that is talking essentially to itself." The will of the UN was flouted. Saddam Hussein posed a terrible danger. Terrorists continue to threaten our freedoms. Democracy in Iraq will take root. It took time in Germany after the war, but it happened then, so it should happen now.
That's it, then. But with the world up in smoke - last week it was Madrid, this week it was the Gaza strip, who knows where it will be next week - has the war made Britain a safer place? "Unquestionably, yes. Because we have indicated beyond any doubt that we are determined to use whatever measures we can to challenge those who seek to destroy our whole system."
No doubts about anything to do with the war? "I have no doubts at all." None? "None at all in any way."
I am lost for words. What on earth do you say? Even Blair, from time to time, betrays the odd flicker of doubt about his actions. The remarkable thing about Clarke is that, to his credit, he's not spinning. It is not in his nature. He believes this stuff. I wonder if he is equally categorical about the future of his great leader. Will Blair see it through to the elections and beyond?
"Absolutely. No doubt about that at all. I'm not privy to the inside of his mind; who knows? But if he wants to, and I certainly hope he does, he will stay. For what it's worth, I profoundly believe he will." He dismisses the debate as "pretty vacuous", but is quite happy to engage in it. What, I wonder, about the argument that it's Brown turn? "I don't understand this 'turn' argument. What is this 'turn' argument? There's a completely false view that there is a natural order to political transition. All I can say is that: a) I hope Tony lasts as long as possible, and I believe he will, and b) at the point when he goes for whatever reason there'll be an election in the Labour Party. And that election will be determined entirely by how the vacancy arose." Just to make sure Brown has got the point, he adds: "Nobody is entitled to an automatic inheritance of any description."
I remind him that, in an interview three years ago, when he was at the Home Office and not even in the cabinet, I identified him as a potential "Stop Gordon" candidate. He did not appreciate it at the time. Or at least he said he didn't. So to continue where I left off, I ask him again. Would he stand? "It entirely depends on the circumstances," Clarke replies. He obviously believes he might have a chance.
With just two months to go before very difficult local and European elections, I ask him about the state of the Labour Party, of which he was chairman until 18 months ago, when he took up this job. "Pretty good," he replies. "There's a much better debate than there was. There's a good balance of opinion." I tell him that those I speak to who deal with the party manifesto express the fear that they are running out of ideas. I should have guessed the response. "Absolutely the reverse . . . We're making the case for public investment rather than tax cuts . . . for the first time for around 30 years we will be the first party running on a programme that says tax cuts are not the most important thing."
We've done education. Getting better. We've done the war. Absolutely fine. We've done Blair. He'll run and run. We've done Brown. No shoo-in, he. We've done Labour. In good shape. What about that nice Mr Howard? I suggest that some at Labour headquarters are genuinely worried about him. Is he? "Not in the slightest," Clarke retorts. "I think he's pathetic. I think his front bench is even more pathetic." Their policies are "crazy . . . batty . . . completely incoherent. I think Howard's all over the shop."