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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.