Blue Monday indeed! I awoke this morning only to discover Ken Clarke’s face on the front page of the BBC News website. The occasion for this is, it seems, David Cameron’s striking decision to mark yet another government bail-out of the banking system — plus the inauguration of the new, glamorous, wildly popular 47-year old US president — by begging a tired, serially unsuccessful and far from popular 68-year old parliamentary colleague to accept the role of business secretary within the Conservative shadow cabinet.
The enormity of this mistake has very little to do with Clarke’s well-rehearsed Europhile enthusiasms. For one thing, Clarke’s no more out of step with mainstream party sentiment on this than he is on plenty of other issues. At the same time, the leadership itself is now so oblivious of mainstream party sentiment, where it isn’t simply aware of it and hence contemptuous of it, that Clarke’s weirder eccentricities (dreaming of a coalition with the LibDems, for instance) hardly register. Meanwhile, ‘shut up and support the leadership, otherwise it’s your fault if we lose the election’, is the not-very-subtle message promulgated by ConHome, Iain Dale & Co. Which is a handy excuse to keep in waiting, by the way, just in case one might be needing it for, oh, something in the not too distant future.
No, the mistake lies elsewhere. For one thing, Clarke’s track-record in office was hardly stellar. Talk to any teachers, doctors or nurses, policemen or indeed civil servants who came into contact with him during his time in government — the result is almost invariably a tale of disorganisation, slackness regarding detail, arrogance larded through with strands of deep incompetence. As chancellor, he benefited directly from a relatively benign economic climate and Britain’s sudden unanticipated freedom from the shackles of the ERM — as indeed did Gordon Brown in his earlier years.
Of course Clarke has his positive side, too — he can, by all accounts, prove an agreeable companion. He’s also, like his former colleague Michael Portillo, a likeable media performer, as long as he avoids political topics, except perhaps at their most harmlessly historical. But to suggest that he is in any way a brilliant politician is to make the easy error of confusing experience with worthwhile achievement. Or do we really want to suggest to the electorate that the dog days of the Major government were a sort of earthly paradise — one which might, perhaps, be glimpsed again were Mr Cameron somehow to become prime minister? It takes some doing to make Gordon Brown sound relatively appealing, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
Nor is it as true as some of today’s party loyalist cheerleaders might claim that Mr Clarke is ‘popular’. For one thing, an increasingly large percentage of the electorate probably have no idea who he is, unable as they are to remember the pre-Blair political dispensation. Others will simply associate him with Mr Major’s slow-motion car-crash of a government (see above). And while there may perhaps be an argument that he polls better with non-Tories than some Tory politicians do, can someone remind me why, exactly, that matters? Personally, I absolutely love Kate Hoey, have quite a lot of time for Frank Field, and, oh, I guess marginally prefer John Reid to Charles Clarke, but none of that has ever translated into the vaguest inclination to cast my vote in Labour’s direction. All of which is precisely the calibre of magic one might hope for our new shadow business secretary to work on the Conservatives’ electoral chances, i.e., not much at all.
Another reason Clarke’s appointment is a mistake is the volume at which it broadcasts a lack of confidence at the heart of Mr Cameron’s project. Someone, I guess, is briefing furiously that the point here is to provide a worthy opponent to Lord Mandelson — the sort of larger-than-life figure that arch-moderniser wee Dinkie Duncan, bless him, could hardly have been expected to take on in a fair fight.
This, though, while at some level true, misses the bigger point, which is the lamentable underperformance of shadow chancellor George Osborne. ‘Let’s support the government’s response to the credit crunch!’ ‘Wait, let’s attack government’s response to the credit crunch!” ‘Let’s match Labour’s spending commitments!’ ‘No, let’s denounce Labour’s spending commitments!’ ‘We can’t possibly promise a tax cut!’ ‘Let’s promise a tax cut!’ Who needs internal party debate on economic issues when this is what a few months of actual, official policy looks like?
No, however limited in his achievements, unpredictable in his pronouncements, internally divisive and pointlessly arrogant Clarke may be, his return to the front bench is presumably intended to strengthen Mr Osborne’s team and to compensate for Mr Osborne’s increasingly apparent deficiencies. That it proved necessary to reach back into the depths of the Major era to do this really says something about Mr Cameron’s assessment of his own parliamentary party — or perhaps, given that there actually are some genuinely intelligent, able and energetic men and women within the parliamentary party whom he might have chosen instead, what it actually says is something about Mr Cameron’s fear of rival leadership candidates.
Additionally, there is no way in which to package this move so that it doesn’t look reactive. Clearly, the Conservative party leadership is frightened of Lord Mandelson, just as it’s frightened of Derek Draper, Alistair Campbell and the rest. As if by magic, then, what could otherwise be made to read as a gesture of desperation on the part of the foundering Gordon Brown project — an admission that Brownism doesn’t work, and that Blairism must in fact have been the true way forward — is inverted, with the would-be Heir to Blair still clearly in awe of the shadow once cast, long ago, by the dark majesty of Millbank Tower. Which is precisely, when one comes to think of it, the sort of Conservative blunder of which Lord Mandelson, and indeed Mr Draper or Mr Campbell, must continually dream.
Then again, there is the gift all this offers to the media, almost profligate in its open-armed generosity. What will become of all Mr Clarke’s famed directorships? Clearly, a shadow business secretary who might conceivably, in due course, have genuine government responsibilities provides a clear target for tough questions and investigative reporting. In the present straitened economic circumstances, does Mr Cameron welcome more stories about how much his front bench earns in outside income? Clearly not — but he hasn’t been able to force his team to abandon their sinecures, so doubtless the stories will continue. And so, too, will the vague taint of Tory Sleaze — another half-forgotten classic of Major-era retro-style conjured up by the Clarke appointment. Again, if this isn’t the sort of blunder about which the Tories’ enemies fantasise, what is?
Perhaps worst of all, though, Mr Cameron’s decision to re-invigorate his front bench by placing this so-called Big Beast upon it reminds us of the central and crippling defect of the whole Cameron enterprise. As Mr Campbell might have put it, what’s the story? What are Cameron’s Conservatives about?
And the answer, alas, rings back all too clearly — Cameron’s Conservatives are about fire-fighting, panics met with panicked responses, improvised solutions to problems real or non-existent. Let’s be Green! Let’s bash asylum seekers! Let’s hug a hoodie! Let’s get tough on hoodies! Let’s attack the City of London because we don’t like the results of a bad monetary policy our own party supported! Let’s lead from the front on the War on Terror — except when we’re asking for an Inquiry into it!
And when it comes to the current financial crisis, let’s do whatever we need to do, this week, to achieve some modest boost in the polling, with no idea where we’re going, or why, or how the story is supposed to end, except insofar as we manage, somewhere along the way, to achieve for Mr Cameron his ambition of becoming prime minister. To what purpose?
It never much surprises me that Mr Cameron views power as an end in itself. What continues to amaze me, though, is the fact that anyone else at all is willing to support him in this — not least, the Conservative party, since contempt for party members, and for their values and proprieties, forms one of the few recognisably consistent strands in Mr Cameron’s ideological programme to date.
No, in watching Mr Cameron’s latest desperate gesture, I am reminded, more than anything else, of what generally happens on one of the rare occasions when I try to nudge our television into recording something. I push a few buttons. Frightening, never-before-seen, largely unintelligible messages appear on the screen, so I push more buttons. Sometimes I try switching the whole thing off and starting again. And admittedly, sometimes I get lucky, admittedly mostly by accident, and everything works. More often, though, someone else has to intervene.
None of which matters much — hence the extravagently casual way in which I’m admitting this — as I don’t think recording things on television is a very important skill. (Actually, I don’t actually think television is very important, but that’s a different question). The relevant point is that I’d never dream of presenting myself as someone who knew anything about programming televisions.
And that’s the difference, really. Who can doubt, right now, that the economy is important? Who can doubt the desirability of having someone in charge who knows what he or she is doing? And yet the option presented by Cameron’s Conservatives seems mostly to consist in pushing first this button, then that one, in an increasingly frantic and aimless fashion, simply hoping that somehow, against all probability, everything will work out. It looks increasingly likely, though — not least on the basis of today’s unwelcome news regarding Mr Clarke — that the electorate will leave it someone else instead.