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.

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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood