Interview - Charles Clarke

''I encouraged Tony to serve as much of his term as he can. I hope he'll want me to do this job thro

The Home Secretary was on the deck of the May-flower in Plymouth, Massachusetts, when the Prime Minister rang to discuss his 12-point plan to counter terrorism. Britain was about to be told, in one of the most controversial announcements of his premiership, that the "rules of the game were changing". What did Charles Clarke say to Tony Blair?

"I said I'd been on a fantastic whale-watching trip the day before, and he was very interested. I am not going to talk about the details of the conversation, but it was a very tense period for the country, and we were in very frequent contact." So, contrary to some suggestions, Clarke did know all about the Prime Minister's anti-terror manifesto in advance? "Of course," he says.

Having dealt with whales and terror, Clarke resumed his holiday in Plymouth. "It is the home of the true fundamentalist," he says. As he does not add, the Pilgrim Fathers who sailed there were escaping persecution. The Blair government, according to some critics, may be sending suspects home to face just such a fate.

Clarke's draft anti-terrorism bill, based on the 12-point plan, was finally unveiled on 15 September. On the same day, seven people, including several acquitted at the "ricin" trial in April this year, were imprisoned pending deportation to Algeria, with which a "no-torture" pact will be signed, Clarke says, "in weeks, and not many weeks".

The bill itself ran into problems with the leak of two draft letters to Clarke's Conservative and Liberal Democrat opposite numbers. The first appeared to show that he had some doubts about the controversial move to hold suspects without charge for three months. The second, and final, version, offered a tougher stance. Will Clarke have to compromise?

"I'm convinced the three months is fine . . . But because both David [Davis] and Mark [Oaten] had raised doubts, I was un- certain quite how to word the covering letter . . . Will we compromise? We will seek to do so. My preference is to work on a basis of compromise and agreement, if we can, but if Mark Oaten wants to say there is no case for extending the time beyond 14 days, I couldn't accept that. But you could have a slightly different argument about timescale." Would a month sound right? "I'm not going to prejudge," he says, but it sounds as if the three-month plan is there to be demolished.

Clarke is more robust on criminalising the "glorification" of terror. "It's simply wrong that it will become illegal . . . to promote a Palestinian state. But if somebody says on Newsnight . . . that he urges people to blow up a bus or two . . . I would say that is behaviour that rightly ought to be illegal." Once again, he "will be interested to see what [his opponents] have to say".

On the judiciary, Clarke is very much less tractable. Though he boasts a good relationship with Lord Woolf, the outgoing Lord Chief Justice, and his successor, Lord Phillips, his views on the law lords go beyond what even his judge-bashing predecessor, David Blunkett, might have thought prudent.

"I have been frustrated at the inability to have general conversations of principle with the law lords . . . because of their sense of propriety. I do find that frustrating. I have never met any of them. I think there is a view that it's not appropriate to meet in terms of their integrity. I'm not sure I agree . . . and I regret that. I think some dialogue between the senior judiciary and the executive would be beneficial, and finding a channel is quite important."

Clearly, the conduit is not going to be Lord Bingham, head of Britain's highest court. In a speech to the Law Society this month he warned against any ministerial interference with judicial independence, adding that it would be the ultimate treason for any judge "to uphold as lawful that which is unlawful".

Although Clarke supports this stance, his rebuke must be the sternest ever delivered by a home secretary to the most senior law lord. "As far as Lord Bingham is concerned, I'm sure he's entirely proper. I was rather surprised, however, that he chose to speak to the Law Society and has not been prepared to talk to the Home Secretary about these matters. But that is a matter for his judgement."

Many think that the higher courts will block deportations, in line with the Chahal case of 1996, in which the European Court of Human Rights ruled that a Sikh militant could not be sent back to India. What will Clarke do then? The answer is a surprise. In an unprecedented legal move, he hopes to take the Chahal case back to Strasburg and ask the European court to rethink its decision. "I am absolutely ready, and keen, to do this, and I have discussed it with other EU governments. I want to revisit the Chahal judgment if we can find a legal device to do that." Presumably he means to bypass the British justice system altogether? "I'm not in a position to talk about the legal route," he says.

Even though Clarke's stated aim is to preserve the Human Rights Act, not destroy it, he argues that being "unable to defend ourselves against a potential terrorist" would create "an almost unstoppable pressure on politicians. People would ask whether we were really saying that adherence to the European Convention was more important than Joe Bloggs blowing up a Tube train. In those circumstances, there would be immense pressure to change our relationship with the European Con- vention on Human Rights." Given a straight choice between security and the human rights convention, would he pull out? "In the ultimate, hypothetical circumstance, my first responsibility is national security," he says.

There is not much sign, so far, of Clarke the softie, recently rumoured to be thought too "tame" by the Prime Minister. Other stories claimed the Home Secretary might be reshuffled by Christmas. "Tony was outraged. He denied it to me, and I believe him completely. In a sense, that [episode] threw up what a common approach we have.

"I call myself tough, not populist. I tell people I'm not a liberal partly because I've become so jaundiced about the identification of the word with the legal profession. Lawyers have hijacked the use of the word liberal. I don't think I'm different from Tony. On the other hand, there are issues where you don't agree."

Such as? "If you give any particular example, it becomes split, division, drama," he says. However, Clarke also concedes that the terror agenda has produced arguments. "Of course. It's not only terror, but every aspect of policy. On shared values and policy goals, Tony and I are like that," he says, clasping his hands together. "Sometimes we don't agree about particulars on how to get there. We have a very direct discussion, and I think we have a good relationship. If we don't agree, we discuss things and decide what to do." Who wins? "It can be me, and it can be him. The mature thing is to recognise that different people are going to have different approaches."

For anyone with an eye on his job - perhaps David Blunkett, who is said still to covet his old post - Clarke has a warning. "I encouraged Tony to serve out as much of this term as he can as PM. I think that's what he'll do, and I hope he'll want me to do this job through that period. I think he will."

Of all Blair's ministers, Clarke is the most inscrutable. In part the silky diplomat, in part pugnacious, he lacks both the off- the-peg responses of the standard liberal and the authoritarian instincts of his predecessor. No doubt he has to trim his views to Blair's, but the idea that he is an anguished civil libertarian forced into bitter compromise seems not quite right, either. Though he is an amiable host ("Coffee? Wine?" he asks when I arrive at the Home Office at lunchtime), he is frigid in a crisis. Where Blunkett relished drama, Clarke may be the least emotional politician I have met.

The distaste for histrionics that commended him to many after the London bombings also informs his dispassionate line on prisons. Although he declines to wring his hands over their (dreadful) state, he is embarking on a thorough overhaul, including an emphasis on non-custodial sentencing and local jails.

In his Prison Reform Trust lecture on 19 September he refused to set targets for reducing inmate numbers. Instead, he abhors the fact that "the least educated and least healthy people are those in the criminal justice system" and intends to curb reoffending by keeping links between offenders, their families and employers. "We need much more use of community sentences, which . . . are much more rigorous on the individual concerned than going to prison."

This philosophy seems to jar with that of the new "Respect" task force tsar, Louise Casey, whose tough line on Asbos endeared her to Blair but not, supposedly, to the Home Secretary, whom she called "Charlie Boy" in an ill-judged after-dinner speech. What does he think of Casey's elevation? "Respect is absolutely crucial. Why Louise? Because she is an exciting, talented person . . . She's not a conventional civil servant; and she has done things that were foolish, as have we all, but she is the kind of person who can really drive this. I get on with her very well."

Clarke is not always so emollient. I ask about the memoir in which Sir John Stevens, the former Metropolitan Police commissioner (who is a Clarke fan) accused Blunkett of backstabbing. At first, Clarke simply says: "It went wrong with David. I don't know why." But does he think Stevens should have written the book? "Actually, I don't. No. It's very difficult when senior public servants write accounts of this type. I don't think he should have done it. I shall not write a book of that type, and I don't think others should."

In political terms, the not-yet-drafted chapters of Clarke's career may be the most interesting. He denies that he has ever said, formally or informally, that he might stand for the Labour leadership. Does he think Gordon Brown the inevitable Blair successor? "I think Gordon would be a very good PM . . . I don't think anything in life is inevitable, but I think it's very likely, and would be a good thing for the country.

"Would I consider standing? Exceptionally unlikely . . . But you just never know what is going to happen." So he might? "I never rule anything out. It would be stupid to do so. But then people over-interpret that to say: if he hasn't ruled it out, it means he's going to be a candidate."

For now, Clarke has to drive his anti-terror bill through parliament and his deportation orders through the courts. His critics say that, in seeking to expel the former Belmarsh detainees and those cleared in the ricin case, he is settling scores with the usual suspects, none of whom is guilty of any crime. He says all those on his list "are a danger to national security".

The judges might think his pacts with countries that practise torture are sufficient. If they do not, the question will be who blinks first, as the judiciary and the executive dispute issues of terror, human rights and primacy. Many futures, not least the Home Secretary's, hinge on what happens next.