On the Ken Clarke mistake

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.

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “On the Ken Clarke mistake

  1. Ah, a wonderful and unexpected birthday present!

    I must confess that only a few weeks ago I made a post on LDV arguing that the Tories should bring back KC. Somewhat ironically, however, I agree with much of the above; we have merely, I think, veered in different directions at the following points:

    1. Whereas you complain about Dave’s lack of spine (and Osbourne’s hopelessness), I just take it for granted – ie. this is the way it is, it won’t change, so the best they can do is to paper it over by appointing “the big beast”.

    2. I place more emphasis on KC’s media profile, and less on his record in government – partially because being able to government doesn’t get one in power. Maybe I’m flattering him, but whenever I see KC on television, or hear him on the old wireless, I always feel like he knows what he’s talking about, even if he’s actually talking utter shite. As Osbourne has, to casually translate a French phrase, ‘a face you’d like to slap’, the odd appearance by KC will happily deflect attention.

    This is, of course, still a pathetic and (as you say) Nu-Lab-emulating strategy – but that’s what Dave does, and he could do much worse than this.

  2. Glad you liked it, Julian. Next year, perhaps I’ll be organised enough to buy you a marginally better present, e.g. Cowling’s ‘Mill and Liberalism’ — but on the other hand it’s important not to get through all the best experiences in life too early.

    As for your actual comments, as far as I can see, we’re basically in agreement. For instance, you’ve got a point about Clarke sounding like he knows what he’s talking about — although personally I’d attribute this more to boundless over-confidence than to experience — as well as the pressing need to distract us all from Obsborne’s uselessness.

    But then, perhaps it’s worth noting one crucial difference between us. While I’m a Tory, (albeit an apparently infinitely grumpy one), you’re a LibDem, and so we’re arguably coming at this from rather different angles, especially where electoral strategy is concerned. Or to put it another way, if I were a LibDem I’d have called for Clarke’s return, too …

    Finally, though, apropos your last paragraph, if there’s anything worse that Dave can do, we probably won’t have to wait many more birthdays until we get the chance to see him do it.

  3. Though I am loathe to admit it, there is no-one, with the possible exception of Vince Cable, that seems to talk any sense regarding the economy. Ken Clarke’s support of a VAT cut demonstrated to me, that whilst he talk the talk, his judgement is not great.

  4. I suppose the key factor in all this will be what the focus groups say. I know from my own point of view that Ken Clarke comes across as the least objectionable Tory of them all (if you’re of a lefty persuasion), although recently I find myself being just as concerned about what it means as anyone else. I don’t want touchy feely pro-European Tories! Christ haven’t we had enough of that with New Labour?

    Cameron’s disregard of the Tory membership will get him elected (I’m sorry to say – the Lib Dems thrall to their membership prevents the same) but he won’t have a mandate to do anything economically liberal, which is a real worry for those of us who want a real alternative to Labour, and anyone on the Thatcherite wing of the Tories must be feeling pretty glum right now.

    This is how Labour activists felt when Tony Blair got elected. Sure, he’d get them elected but what’s the point if all he does is pander to the opposition?

  5. UK Voter, I agree with you about the limits of Clarke’s economic judgement. But even if his judgement were better, he’d still be part of a team that has yet to demonstrate any real grasp of the current economic problems — what caused them, what to do about them now, how to avoid them in the future.

    Charlotte, it’s great to have your perspective on all of this. Doesn’t it worry you, though, that although Ken Clarke says things that you (and others!) might like at a rhetorical level, his track-record in office was consistently rather poor?

    Rightly or wrongly, I do think the current Conservative leadership team is much less competent — less good at getting things done, whatever those things might be — than Blair’s team was, although the parallel is, of course, a revealing one. Indeed, my problems with Mr Cameron have as much to do with his incompetence (organisational, presentational, you name it) as with ideology. What’s the point of wrapping yourself in the shiny new mantle of change and ‘reform’ and then serving up, as the high point of a reshuffle, a retread from the Major era, almost 70 years old and frankly not very good when he was younger? It’s just incompetent, because it’s so nakedly desperate and reactive. And while a decision like that might cheer up the polls for a few days or weeks, it doesn’t project the sort of strong, clear, coherent message — or even an Obama-grade coherence of style and manner — that wins big majorities.

    In short, if Cameron does manage to scrape together an election victory — and I’m considerably less sure of this than you are — this will be the result of a sort of miserable, angry protest vote against Brown & Co, rather than an embrace of some alternative, plausible vision.

    And that isn’t the sort of situation that makes for very constructive policy programmes, or very happy political parties, is it? In truth, a lot of Conservatives are feeling pretty glum right now. So although emetic self-congratulatory smugness like this may be possible today, I confidently predict the mother of all ferrets-in-a-sack scenarios, beginning about half an hour into the next Conservative government, as the party tries to clarify what it stands for, other than Mr Cameron’s personal self-aggrandisement, free from some perceived need to hide its considerable internal divisions from the electorate.

    See? There’s something to look forward to after all … not least for the LibDems!

  6. A quick coffee-enhanced postscript for Charlotte …

    Enthusiasts for economic liberalism should worry about Mr Cameron, mandate or no mandate. Split-second reactions to crises are always revealing — and what Mr Cameron’s response to the first wave of the credit crunch, as displayed in his emergency speech to party conference on 30 September 2008, revealed was an instinctive antipathy to what we might, for the sake of simplicity, call ‘the free market’. In other words, his response was to blame ‘the bankers’ [any particular ‘bankers’? no, all ‘bankers’, apparently] who ‘pay themselves too much’ [unlike politicians, obviously] for the entire crisis, and then to support whatever action the Labour government wanted to take, regarding ‘financial stability’. ‘We believe in free enterprise, and we understand it,’ he said, rather implausibly, before announcing that ‘today is a day for reassurance and safety and protection’. Which rather suggests that Mr Cameron only believes in free enterprise up to the point that government has to step in and ‘put the economy right’ — free, then, but not all that free.

    Apropos incompetence, it was only later that his team began to develop a story about government responsibility for the problems — although I remain convinced that no one, but no one on his team understands even the most basic points about monetary policy. Instead, Mr Cameron was very quick to clamber onto the ‘lynch the bankers’ bandwaggon, which suggests a disturbing willingness to go along with everyone else’s narrative — this, despite the fact that the financial sector is already rather tightly regulated, that bankers invariably have to face the consequences of their mistakes with a directness rarely matched in other areas of endeavour (since when do politicians end up having their pay docked and losing their jobs just because they happened to piss away a few million pounds of someone else’s money?) and that, well, the market has a way of correcting itself if there’s an imbalance — not always a pretty sight, and tough for many largely blameless people caught up in the resultant mess, but a situation rarely improved by yet more socialistic tinkering with its time-tested mechanisms.

    Compare this with, oh, Vince Cable’s pronouncements, or John Redwood ‘s blog posts — even if one doesn’t agree with much that either of them says, there’s at least a coherent narrative there, a practical understanding both of macroeconomics and microeconomics with a degree of theoretical integrity, and an internally consistent message about what needs to be done. Quite genuinely, the prospect of putting Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne in charge of our economy scares me much more than leaving Brown & Co in place — which is a pretty grim thing for a long-time Conservative to have to admit.

  7. I’ll be honest with you and say I’d have been much more impressed with Ken’s return about 5 years ago. 😉

    These days Ken doesn’t even sound like a Tory to me, which, I guess, is the point. But, like Boris, he’s likeable, bordering on charming – and you have very few of those. Comparing him with Mandelson… well there’s only one winner there. Mandelson oozes sleaze.

    Cameron – a man seemingly haunted by the spectre of Alan B’Stard – is having to reach out to the widest range of people and demonstrate that all divisions are behind his party (and make sure everyone knows you’re not a libertarian party!).

    This seems to have done the job very well, but it’s risky for the reasons you describe.

    For what it’s worth I don’t think incompetence is coming through to the mainstream consciousness – all eyes are on Brown and his ‘reluctant’ socialism.

    The key for you guys, when it really matters, will be how Cameron performs during the General Election, and I think you have reason to be optimistic here – considering last time he went into General Election mode he got Brown to bottle out of the election plan altogether.

    Just don’t mention Europe whatever you do. 🙂

  8. I think we can agree, Charlotte, that Mr Cameron has been almost unnaturally lucky in having Mr Brown for an opponent — the real wonder has to be that the Tories aren’t doing much better than they are at present, given the awful economic climate, the divisions within the Labour party, Brown’s lack of nerve, and the conspicuous mess that Labour are making of pretty much everything.

    As for not mentioning Europe, though — good plan — slightly tricky, though, surely, given the European elections in June this year? 😉

  9. Ah I’ve just noticed your postscript.

    That’s… quite alarming. Perhaps I should spend a bit more time reading Conservative blogs?

    I do tend to agree though – Cameron’s painted himself into a terrible hole where he’s a supposed to be a modernising, reforming Tory, which means hiding those malevolent economic liberals from the public.

    The great danger here is that Brown pushes the Tories back off to the Right and reclaims the centre ground and wins another term. It is essential from a campaigning point of view that this does not happen, which is why, I think, the economic crisis has been very difficult for Cameron. He’s in uncomfortable, unfamiliar territory.

    I think you’re right when you say there’s no-one in Cameron’s team that understands this magic centre ground economic theory and practice as well as New Labour do. He’s competing against lifelong statists and interventionalists that have been itching to nationalise the banks for a century, after all. All this comes easy to Labour, but that doesn’t mean they’re doing the correct thing!

    As frustrating as it might be, winning elections and governing the country properly are two very different skills, and depressingly seems to require contradictory and mutually exclusive policies.

    European Elections? Groan! I had forgotten. You think you’ve got it tough? “Hi, I’m with the Lib Dems, we’re the Pro-Europe Party! Will you be… ” slam.

  10. Cameron’s a modernising, reforming Conservative all right (not a Tory, btw — he apparently objects to that word!) — except when he wants to ban violent lyrics in hip-hop music, or to retain the listing of ecstasy as a Class A drug, or to ‘get tough on bogus asylum seekers’, or indeed to lower immigration levels, or whatever other pointless nastiness the focus groups are baying for at the moment, at which point he becomes an old-fashioned, unfashionable Conservative again — although, alas, never quite my kind of old-fashioned, unfashionable Conservative.

    What you write about the danger Brown pushing the Tories to the Right is, of course, interesting. Personally, though, I wonder whether the electorate is feeling very ideological at the moment? Obama’s victory, for instance, seems to me to have been more about a weird mixture of pragmatism and inchoate idealism than about ideology per se — and by the same token, I strongly suspect that UK voters are more interested in finding someone to step in and straighten out this mess than in ‘Left’ or ‘Right’. After all, if, back in January 2008, someone had asked a focus group whether it would be a good idea for the government to part-nationalise most of the financial sector, the idea would perhaps not have been greeted with enormous enthusiasm — but at present, pretty much everyone seems to think it’s a wonderful, uncontroversial, unproblematic scheme.

    As mentioned above, my main problem with Cameron has never been an ideological one. Nor do I think ideological reasons have much to do with the Conservatives’ potential electoral problems.

    Looking back a bit, Mrs Thatcher and Mr Reagan both won reasonable mandates, not by being wildly ideological (both made huge compromises and fostered distinctly strange alliances, whatever myth might say to the contrary), but by producing a coherent story about how things had gone wrong, offering some clear ideas about how things might be put right, creating a clear distinction between both the policies and governing ethos of their own party and those of their opponents, and in general projecting the notion that they had the sort of team that could get things done. And in doing so, they managed to attract support from far beyond their traditional support base.

    Now, I don’t want to get into a fight about whether Mr Thatcher and President Reagan were perfect human beings or whether the results they achieved were in every way marvellous, because that’s not the point. I only make the comparison because it seems to speak to your striking paragraph above about how winning elections and governing the country constitute different skills, ‘and depressingly seems to require contradictory and mutually exclusive policies’. Is that always the case, or is it only the case in a political climate over-preoccupied with focus groups at the expense both of natural political ‘instinct’ and of, well, doing the right thing because it’s the right thing?

    Cameron, anyway, seems to me to have failed to produce any sort of coherent, convincing account of anything. This is not only uninspiring for the electorate — although it is uninspiring — but it argues for the sort of personal defects as a leader which are, no matter how many focus groups one sets up, how many Steve Hiltons one hires or how woeful the other parties — absolutely impossible to fix, and at the same time probably more evident in power than in opposition. The fact that Cameron can never quite figure out whether he agrees with the Labour party or not is just a symptom of a much bigger problem. Wanting power as an end in itself is, ultimately, not the easiest project to sell to other people.

    Finally, as for reading Tory blogs more often — I’d actually go for the ‘drinking paint stripper’ option instead! 😉

  11. I had a think about this subject and did a quick blog post about it. I think there’s a reason Cameron’s being cagey about policy – Brown is desperate for something to attack, something to criticise. As long as he continues to be deprived he’s effectively powerless.

    Brown’s supposed to be this genius tactical political thinker, but his flaw is that his machinations are rather transparent and easily countered. 😉

  12. Margaret Thatcher, in opposition, gave the impression she wouldn’t have minded remaining in opposition if the government “stole her policies” provided it did the right thing. This made her an effective opposition leader (I would listen to someone the government stole ideas from) and led her to win three elections.

    David Cameron gives me the impression of being the sort of scoundrel who would pray for a nuclear attack on this country (provided no one catches him at it) so he can make a “tough” speech and denounce the government’s response. He is the answer to the wrong question today: a Tory Blair, without the principles, tactic skills or sense of humour.

    I trust Mr Cameron to sell me a car less than I would any of the last six Labour leaders. One of the Conservative Party’s problems is that the leaders since 1990 I could trust to be honest, I would worry about their ability to tie their own shoelaces.

  13. Amen, brother! I could not agree more thoroughly.

    Mrs Thatcher benefited from having a reasonably coherent and consistent set of ideas, coupled with a realistic and indeed pragmatic grasp of the means required to implement those ideas. Mr Cameron, unfortunately, lacks both the ideas and the realism. He lives in a fantasy world of his own arrogance, psephological pseudo-science and the stern imperatives of getting on well with Guardian readers.

    Doubtless, Antoine, you will have enjoyed Mr Cameron’s Davos musings precisely as much as most of Mr Cameron’s bemused, mistreated party will have done — not only are we a Green party, and a Liberal party, and a right-wing populist party all at once, but we’re social democrats, too. Who realised?

    And then there’s this whole business of wildcat secondary picketing, to which the Conservative response seems to be a mild statement that we understand how people feel, and that the government needs to do more to ‘create and protect British jobs’. Mrs Thatcher would, I think, have put it rather differently.

    Tie their own shoelaces? We’ll be lucky if any of us actually still have shoelaces once this lot are done with us.