Say this for David Cameron’s autumn reshuffle: it hasn’t unravelled as quickly or spectacularly as George Osborne’s last budget. Hurray for that. But nor has it been deemed a grand success. See Telegraph writers here, here and here for evidence of that.
If you want to make a difference – that is, if you wish the general public to sit up and think, By Jove, he’s finally got it – you need to defenestrate an admiral or two. A reshuffle that leaves the Great Offices of State as they were cannot pass that test. Which means, I’m afraid, that only sacking George Osborne would have made this a memorable reshuffle. Like Tony Blair before him, Cameron may yet regret not dealing with his Chancellor.
Iain Martin got to the guts of it with his characteristic faux-puzzled under-statement:
This Government is in a hole because of the economy. The Chancellor is about as popular as Fred Goodwin. But the reshuffle happened in a different space from that reality, so the watching public (such as it cares) will see George Osborne, the main guy associated with the biggest problem, still in place and standing there grinning as though he’s just won the lottery. This, him still being there, will puzzle, but possibly not surprise, a great many people.
Indeed. Meanwhile, Ken Clarke has been demoted and will serve out his remaining days in government as Minister without Portfolio/Minister for the Today programme. I dare say this will please so-called “Mainstream Conservatives”. It will strike everyone else – at least those paying attention – as mildly bonkers. And unfair.
The Tory leadership appears to view Ken as some kind of eccentric uncle of whom they’re fond of despite suspecting they shouldn’t be, and of whom they are embarrassed but not quite to the point of getting rid of him forever. And so he has been shoved off to a non-job in which, it is supposed, at least he can do no harm.
What a sad, even shabby, end to one of the great political careers of modern times. You doubt this? Think again. Ken’s first government post came 40 years ago when he joined the Whips office. After the blessed Margaret became Prime Minister he served a couple of tours in junior ministerial positions before his promotion to the cabinet. Since then he has been, in order, Paymaster General, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State for Health, Secretary of State for Education and Science, Home Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary of State for Justice & Lord Chancellor.
When Team Dave arrived in Downing Street, old Ken had more government experience than the new Prime Minister, Chancellor, Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary and Defence Secretary combined. In an era that over-values youth his experience of how government actually sodding works should have been prized more highly.
I have no notion (or, to be honest, memory) of his performance as Paymaster or at the Duchy of Lancaster but he has been a success in every other post. Those Tories who think him an incorrigibly wet old softy might care to remember his bruising battles with the unions when he was at health and education. He wasn’t afraid of making enemies and many of them were the right ones too.
Though some have never forgiven him for it, Clarke was the first cabinet minister to tell the Lady that her time was up. If nothing else his role in thwarting the idea of Prime Minister Kinnock deserves more praise than he has been granted.
And Clarke was, by some distance, the most successful Chancellor of the past 25 years. True, this is not a severely high bar to clear; nevertheless it is one worth clearing. Indeed, you can make a semi-plausible argument that Clarke only ceased to be Chancellor in 1999. Though he did other things in his first two years in office, hindsight suggests one of the most important things Brown did was stick to Clarke’s spending plans. After that, well, not so much.
Yes, yes, yes, there was the Europe thing, and the Whatabouters and Betteroffouters will never forgive Clarke that or allow anyone else to forget it either. But that ship sailed long ago and Ken, like most ordinary people, has let it pass. Even if you think Clarke hopelessly wrong on Europe it’s a mistake to distill an entire career to just that.
Why does Ken matter? Because he had, indeed has, a hinterland. The Hush Puppies, the cigars, the real ale, the jazz and the cricket are more than fripperies or mere stylistic adornment. They gave Clarke bottom. You might – indeed many did – disagree with him but these things helped make him seem a man of some substance who had – and enjoyed – a life beyond politics. He hasn’t needed to pretend.
Clarke has been a politician and a Member of Parliament since 1970, but he’s never seemed a career politician in quite the same manner as many of his successors and younger colleagues so often seem to be. Authenticity is a rare commodity in modern politics and Clarke is one of the few who has that unforced, plainly evident, quality. It helps that he can be candid and admit mistakes too.
And this is important because it helps create the conditions for good politics. You can’t achieve much if people will not listen to you with at least some modicum of respect. Modern politics is, in part, a sales business and it’s daft to pretend it ain’t.
Of course there was never any chance that Cameron might sack Osborne. But I fancy there are plenty of people who would listen to Chancellor Clarke with greater attention and respect than they are minded to afford Chancellor Osborne.
Poor Osborne. He is damaged goods. Even when he is right he will not persuade voters that he is correct. They doubt his good intentions and, alas, are primed to think the worst of everything he does, ascribing the darkest of motivations to even Georgie’s most innocent remarks or ploys.
If Osborne handed a five pound note to every voter in the land most would reach for their wallets to check he hadn’t found a way of removing a ten pound note on the sly.
This is, I’m sure, unfair. Nevertheless Osborne has a problem. People have ceased listening to him. They doubt his good faith. They do not trust him. Nor, unfortunately, do they think him an honourable man. Politicians don’t have to be liked but they must be respected. Osborne is not.
Clarke is, however, and not just because he’s at that pensionable age at which even the buggers you always hated become surprisingly-entertaining-grand-old-men whose appearances on Question Time are treated with an indulgence they would never have been granted back in their terrifying, divisive pomp. No, I fancy there’s life in old Ken yet and that, though one should be wary of siren calls suggesting one man can transform a government’s fortunes, he’d still be a better Chancellor than the man presently occupying the Treasury.
If nothing else, people would listen to Clarke. That may not be quite half the battle in politics but it’s a pretty decent start. A still-callow cabinet might do well to reflect on the lessons of Ken Clarke’s career and appeal.