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 deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.