Opinion: A Diminished Clarke – a picture of electoral calculation and desperation

What Ken Clarke has been sent out to do (FT.com – requires registration) – and has been willing to do – diminishes him. It can hardly diminish his party.

Ken Clarke is a fervent European but he has been willing to return to the frontline of Tory politics. No doubt he believes he has done a deal…and he has calculated that he can hold back the forces of Euro-scepticism in the Tory party. The gag he is now prepared to wear, on European matters, is a measure of how unsound his judgement has become.

He has a point when he complains that “image has taken over from substance in the coverage of British politics”. But, instead of trying to provide some countervailing substance he has joined the pack. He says, when it comes to the polling booth, he wants “real grit and the capability to govern”. But he knows – better than most: the tribe to which he has committed his political life no longer has the grit needed to deal with the most serious economic crisis of his lifetime or the capability to govern well.

George Osborne is the leading example, in British politics, of a senior political figure lacking all substance. Osborne’s obsession with positioning and his willingness to make announcements, in response to focus group findings, marks him out as peculiarly unfit to take on the Chancellorship.

Rather than deal with the weakness, vacillation and simple-minded electoral calculation that has driven Tory economics for the last five years Ken Clarke has turned his guns on the Liberal Democrats. Nick Clegg, he makes it clear, is a nice chap. Though he would rather Nick had joined the Conservative party, where Ken could have taken him under his wing. However, Nick’s rejection of the Tory tribe need not become a capital offence. Jolly decent of him to say so.

Ken Clarke wants to make it clear that his dispute is with Liberal Democrat policy not with its nice leader.

What’s Ken’s beef? Nick wants to clamp down on tax avoidance and evasion. What a silly boy! No serious politician, in Ken Clarke’s eyes, could possibly regard that as a pressing concern. The idea that it is even possible, let alone desirable, to reduce tax evasion and avoidance by 10%, in order to make Britain fairer, is strong evidence, on its own, that Nick and his party should be ruled out as a sensible party of government.

Ken Clarke disputes the Liberal Democrat cap on public sector pay, because it “would save nothing relative to existing plans”. The cap on pay, in other words, needs to be tighter (a complete freeze for four or five years?) or supplemented by substantial additional savings. That is what our very own Vince Cable says. But it isn’t what Ken Clarke’s own party and its shadow chancellor have said (in public at least).

I have a suggestion for Ken Clarke – first cast the beam out of your own party eye. Only then can you parade your party’s fitness for government, assuming that it is willingness to cut that is the only true test of seriousness and capability to govern.

Finally, in his assault on the Liberal Democrats for the FT, Ken Clarke turns to the subject of hung parliaments. He raises the spectre of backroom deals done with Ulstermen, Scottish and Welsh nationalists and the Lib Dems. Of course, we all know that deals with Ulstermen have been on David Cameron’s mind and suspect that Ken has his own backroom deal with his party leader. Pots and kettles come to mind.

What Ken Clarke ignores is the remarkable success, in economic terms, of economic governance in the UK, under the Liberal-Labour agreement, in the late 1970s. Labour called in the IMF, before the agreement, but it took a combination of parties and of party leaders, who put the country’s interests ahead of narrow party interest, to row back from a near economic catastrophe. An economic crash fermented under a succession of Labour AND Conservative governments.

Ken Clarke has a better grasp than most of relatively recent British political and economic history. He really should know better.

* Ed Randall, a Liberal Democrat councillor in the London Borough of Greenwich from 1982 to 1998, edited the Dictionary of Liberal Thought jointly with Duncan Brack. Ed lectures on Politics and Risk at Goldsmiths University of London and is the author of Food, Risk and Politics, published by Manchester University Press in 2009. Read more by Ed Randall here.

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