Ken Clarke: "The iron of the Treasury has entered my soul". Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.

Photo:Getty
Show Hide image

Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.