Ken Clarke: "The iron of the Treasury has entered my soul". Photo: Getty
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Exclusive: Ken Clarke warns Tories against “blank cheques” and “silly” pledges that could wreck “fragile” recovery

The former Tory Chancellor also says his party hasn't won an election for 23 years because it's "too right-wing", and that attacking Ed Miliband's personality will "cost votes".

Read the full interview here.

This week, I interviewed Ken Clarke. He is best known for serving as Chancellor under John Major in 1993-97, but his government career has spanned three different cabinets: those of Major, Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron. He has also served as Home Secretary and Health Secretary. He has been an MP for 45 years, and is running again this time round – but for the last time, he expects – at the age of 74.

The full interview is available here, but this is a run-down of some of his thoughts on the most topical elements of the general election campaign. Most notably, he warns against unfunded spending commitments. The Conservatives have been accused over the past week of promising extra funding for the NHS, increasing free childcare, and extending Right to Buy without costing it.

Warns his party against wrecking a “very fragile” recovery by being “silly”

We still have not created a rebalanced, modern, competitive economy, which can start producing sustainable rises in living standards and employment laws, and I think it is the single biggest issue affecting the country at the moment - that's my genuine view...

...You do need to campaign, and talk about the economy in a different way, you can't take anything for granted. People want quicker solutions, simple solutions.

As the recession caused people to be less well-off than they hoped to be in practically every quarter of society, they are resentful about the sitting government and about politicians who they think should've solved it all by now.

...There are other things, education and training. Getting a rebalanced economy isn't just debt. Debt and deficit is a precondition. It's education reform, skills training, apprenticeships, the science and technology budget, reforming corporate taxation. Now, you can't win votes on all those, but they are the things you should remind people of to keep the tone right of the campaign, which is continued economy recovery.

We've got a very good recovery at the moment, but it's very fragile and can soon be swept away if we start doing silly things.

Underlines the importance of not giving out “blank cheques”

I took over a fiscal problem. Not as bad as George's, and my four years were dominated by a constant drive to control public expenditure and to get back to a balanced budget with a surplus, which I succeeded in doing, but it was wading in blood even in those days. Year on year public spending cuts.

All the lobbies were saying ‘this is the end of civilisation as we know it if we don't have x million pounds’. At election times, as financial minister you've got to try and stop your colleagues giving in to too many of them.

...It remains to be seen how whatever government you elect is going to be able to provide those resources. Signing up to blank cheques for any of these lobbies – what really matters is to make sure the money is spent in such a way that you maximise the beneficial output for the public.

I would no more give a blank cheque to the BMA than I would give a blank cheque to the generals. The iron of the Treasury has entered my soul. Year by year I would sit down and say 'How exactly are you going to spend it? What went wrong with what you were supposed to be doing with it last year?'

Laments that his party is too right-wing, which has stopped it winning

No one seems to be able to win elections nowadays. I belong to the Conservative party that usually won elections! Before 1992, the Conservative party had been the national governing party of the country for most of my lifetime. And most elections I fought the Conservative party had won. And now we haven't been able to win an election for 23 years.

AC: What's that down to?

Well, it's become much too right-wing. Which I hope David will continue to seek to redress in coming times.

Cautions that it will “cost votes” to personally attack Ed Miliband

The public debate and the media, which is becoming increasingly celebrity culture, rather hysterical, sensational, and reduces the whole thing to theatre. Everybody's election campaigns are presidential, everything's attributed to the party leader. What matters is how the party leader eats a hamburger and all this type of thing. I mean, it does switch the public off.

AC: Tories seem to feel it’s beneficial to attack Ed Miliband's personality...

Yes, with some people yeah. That's if you buy this notion that it's all celebrity culture. 

AC: Michael Fallon got in a bit of trouble for calling Ed Miliband a backstabber...

Well. I won't get onto that, but personally I disapprove of personal attacks on your opponents. I've never done that. I also think it costs you votes. If either side goes in for personal attacks on the other side.

Full interview here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Despite its Brexit victory, the hate-addicted right rages on – but the left is silent

The Brexit victors aren’t addicted to independence. They’re addicted to hatred.

The weirdest thing about Brexit is how angry the victors are. You would expect the losers to be sore – but open any British newspaper and it’s as if getting what they wanted has rendered the winners yet more snappish. At any time, you can guarantee that the medium least likely to offer principled opposition to any assault on democracy is the British press. Even so, it’s astonishing to open a copy of the Daily Telegraph and find that a byline has become a mere technicality, a breakwater for the eye. Page after page, countless squads of identical bald clones drone on – all chorus, no counterpoint – ranting about the evils of a Europe, which, in theory, they are supposed to have vanquished.

What is the point of having so many writers when they all write the same article? It turns out that it wasn’t Europe they wanted to leave. It was contemporary Britain. They’re not addicted to independence. They’re addicted to hatred.

In the United States, television and newspaper reporters have understood that their president is out to get them. So they are fighting back, challenging him on his lies in a way that the BBC does not dare. Women, African Americans and Latinos have all staged impressive demonstrations to disrupt the idea that the current state of affairs in the US is either necessary or, more important, normal. Republican senators aiming to take away their voters’ rights to health care have been facing impassioned town-hall meetings. There is exhilarating satire on television.

But over here, the 48 per cent of people who feared a loveless future of cringing isolation, austerity and social backwardness have been largely content to take defeat on the chin, as though cowed by the fact that so many of the poorest among us don’t agree.

In Britain, the silence is eerie. We know from experience that it takes time for artists and film-makers to respond to sudden changes of temperature.

Margaret Thatcher was first elected in 1979, but it wasn’t until 1982 that we were enlightened by Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff; My Beautiful Laundrette didn’t ­arrive until 1985; and it was 1987 before Caryl Churchill gave us Serious Money – a full eight years after Thatcher’s election.

All three works may enjoy an enduring power and authority denied to the collected speeches of Norman Tebbit. They define the era. But they all came too late to do anything more than raise morale. The damage had been done. You may feel that the musical of Billy Elliot nailed Thatcher’s government definitively, but it began to offer its insights 15 years after her resignation.

Politics in the West is in a mess because no one can answer the question of why Western labour should continue to enjoy its relative privileges when labour in the rest of the world can offer to do our work so much more cheaply. The standard answers from left and right are equally unconvincing and polluted by residual imperialist attitudes to race. Conservatives swing wildly. On some days, they behave as if they can continue to enjoy the free movement of capital while planning to forbid the free movement of labour. On others, they pretend that they still believe in the same market that failed so spectacularly ten years ago.

Neither position is coherent, and the mix of the two is crazy. But the left has done little better to explain how social justice can be advanced in the face of an international buffeting that has no care for workers’ rights.

In 2015, Ed Miliband, the then leader of the Labour Party, went into the general election without having decided whether he was or wasn’t going to defend the Keynesian public spending that had saved Britain from the corruption of the banks. The present leader of the Conservative Party, always marching fearlessly behind a thick cladding of popular prejudice, is implementing a European divorce against which she campaigned only a year ago. Small wonder that people have so little hope of Westminster.

Historically, we have always been taught that change comes from below. When people suffer intolerably, they overturn the cause of their suffering. Yet they still need representatives who can articulate their needs. Revulsion has to bubble up soon, but so do policies.

In our daily lives, we all meet people who are thoughtful, kind-hearted, efficient and serious. We encounter such people in medicine, in education, in law enforcement and in social care, and it is their generosity and foresight that make life worth living. Yet Theresa May is content to hug close individuals who would be thrown out of any job but politics. Her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, was sacked by the Times for lying. Her Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, was accused of trying to interfere with a prison inspection report while he was justice secretary, and he banned sending books to prisoners.

Most inexplicable of all was the elevation of Liam Fox, her International Trade Secretary, who is in permanent disgrace because he has refused fully to admit wrongdoing for overclaiming expenses and using public money to pay a close friend who attended 57 per cent of his Ministry of Defence engagements without security clearance.

Why on earth are such people promoted by a vicar’s daughter who boasts of her moral values? It is in that disparity between who we are and how we are represented that the best hope of opposition lies.

Disbelief will shade into outrage, even if Labour continues to be led by a man blithely indifferent to the practicalities of getting ­anything done. Confronted with the ascen­dancy of scoundrels such as Fox, Grayling and Johnson, anyone, from any part of the UK, will agree with Karl Marx: shame is the only revolutionary emotion.

David Hare is a playwright

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition