The nearly men: Ken Clarke

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Some reacted with alarm to the news that Ken Clarke had been appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1993. Some were simply he worried that he wasn’t up to it. He had been a bad gaffe-prone Health Secretary and little better in Education. Others were simply worried about Clarke’s seemingly unstoppable rise to power. Had John Major, like Anthony Eden promoting Macmillan in 1955, unwittingly appointed his successor?

In fact, neither group need have worried. Ken Clarke (he had previously been Kenneth but like Anthony Wedgewood Benn and Anthony Blair, this was seen as too posh) was a successful Chancellor as he had been a successful Home Secretary in the year before 1993. It is true, the Tories never regained their reputation for economic competence under him, but this was hardly his fault. The shambles of Black Wednesday in 1992 during which interest rates rose fifteen times in one day put paid to that. Major was very lucky to survive.

Why then didn’t Clarke become Tory leader after the 1997? His two main rivals had disappeared after all, young Michael Portillo losing his seat in the electoral b deluge, old Michael Heseltine declared unfit after an angina attack soon after. Ken Clarke was surely the obvious choice, the most popular, experienced and credible candidate?

The simple answer is that the Tories had been driven bonkers by their 1997 defeat and were prepared to follow whatever their elderly ex-leader Lady Thatcher said. And she endorsed the former Welsh Secretary William Hague.

William Hague might well make a good Prime Minister today. But he was an appalling choice in 1997, only 36, little known to the public, gaffe-prone and looking and sounding weird. He never shook off the fallout from the blunder of wearing his baseball hat at the Notting Hill Carnival (a desperate attempt to look cool) or the memory of his teenage appearance at the Tory Party Conference in the 1970s. His error in letting through Blair’s Lords reform measures, his enthusiastic endorsement of Lord Archer as London’s 2000 mayoral candidate, all testified to his poor judgement. He was redeemed slightly by strong performances at Prime Minister’s Questions. But even this merely strengthened the impression that he was a political geek. Little wonder the Tories made only one net gain in 2001, a disastrous follow up to their worst election defeat of the 20th century.

Hague, had however, been anti-European and endorsed by Lady Thatcher. Even more crazily, this was enough to push Tories towards Iain Duncan Smith instead of Clarke in 2001. This proved an even more bonkers choice than Hague had been. IDS totally lacked the charm of his predecessor and was turned out in favour of a temporary caretaker leader Michael Howard in 2003.

In their desperation for unity, the Tories had appointed Howard without an election, something they would vilify Labour for with Gordon Brown just two years later. Howard had also been a disaster as Home Secretary in government and had come last in the 1997 leadership contest in which Hague had beaten Clarke. He did perform more effectively in 2005, reducing Blair’s majority to a still substantial 66.

Determined not to see, his irritable colleague David Davis succeed, Howard postponed his resignation as leader until later in 2005. Clarke on his third run as leader seemed to stand a good chance at first but was ultimately harmed by revelations of his business links with British tobacco. He was at any rate, now too old. Tories probably made the right choice in selecting David Cameron, still not yet forty in 2005 and only an MP for four years.

Today, old Ken Clarke remains in government. In earlier, less youth-fixated times (all three party leaders are now in their forties), he might still stand a chance.

His misfortune was to be in the ascent during a decade when the Tories had rarely been loopier.

Other nearly men…

RA  (“RAB”) Butler:  The founder of the famous Butler Education Act. Why not PM?: Screwed over by colleague Harold Macmillan in both 1957 and again in 1963.

Tony Benn: Long standing Labour MP and diarist. Why not PM? Went ultra-left wing after 1973 and was probably too unpalatable even for 1970s/1980s Labour after that. Might have led Labour had he not lost his seat in 1983. Kinnock won instead.

Neil Kinnock: The longest serving Opposition leader since World War II (1983-1992). Why never PM? Came close in 1992, but the public and especially the press never warmed to him. Arguably saved Labour from destruction though.

David Davis: Briefly the front runner in the 2005 Tory leadership contest but notoriously moody. Cameron triumphed when Davis’s electoral address fell flat.

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Book review: Power Trip by Damian McBride

Power TripHistory is likely to be kinder to the Blair-Brown Government than some contemporary critics, including, for example, the Cameron Government have been.
Day after day we are told that the last government wasted billions of the nation’s finances after 2008. The reality is that Brown Government handled the global banking crisis as well as any government could have done, indeed perhaps slightly better. Cameron’s Tories certainly seemed clueless on the subject at the time.
Indeed, Brown’s introduction of quantative easing most likely saved the global banking system. The Tory charge that the government had failed to save up any “rainy day” money during the years of prosperity is weak too. Levels of debt were no worse before 2008 than they had been under the Major years.
In short, if the Blair-Brown government is guilty of not legislating to restrain the markets and not clearing its debts before 2008 (and it is), it is no more guilty than any other previous post-war government was. And for all his faults as a leader (which are not insignificant), Gordon Brown’s leadership probably prevented a recession from becoming a depression.
All in all, with three election victories, the salvation of the NHS, a dramatic drop in the crime rate, a decade of prosperity and the Good Friday Agreement, it is not a bad record.
Labour have always been poor at boasting about their achievements, however, and memoirs like this by Gordon Brown’s ex-spin doctor Damian McBride which draw attention to the seedier side of New Labour, do not help.
Released in time for this year’s Labour Party Conference, the damaging effect of the book was ultimately cancelled out by the impact of the Daily Mail’s stupendous gaffe over Ralph Miliband.
But let’s not pretend New Labour come well out of this book. They don’t, simply because McBride’s memoirs revive memories of the unhappy days of the Brown premiership
McBride is clearly highly intelligent and writes well. Against all the odds, he comes across (occasionally) as a likeable figure. He was and is loyal to his former master Gordon Brown. He was a success as Treasury Head of Communications from 2003 until 2007, perhaps partly explaining why Brown enjoyed such popularity as Chancellor. The wheels came off after 2007 when Brown became PM. McBride had lost all the contacts at the Treasury he had relied upon. After the “election that never was” things went from bad to worse although McBride was felled by an email scandal in 2009 so escapes responsibility for Mrs Duffy and the other mishaps of Brown’s last year.
McBride’s competence is surprising bearing in mind he seems to have been a functioning alcoholic throughout this period. Only a tragicomic episode at the 2005 Party Conference where he was found fast asleep naked and face down on bed and unable to be woken caused him major trouble. Amusingly, after no one could wake him, Ed Balls attempted to, before reeling back after the naked drunken semi-conscious McBride apparently mistook him for a female bed partner and made an amorous grab for him.
Contrary to rumour, Eds Balls and Miliband do not come off badly in the book and are merely harmed by the reminder of their close association with Brown (which is hardly a revelation anyway). Brown too although prone to wail “How could he/she/they do this to me?” when anything went wrong, does not come across as all bad either. Although almost comically incapable of speaking fluently and naturally in public (McBride describes how Brown’s visage would suffer because his brain would be working at numerous levels at once), his decision not to exploit his family for party political gain (something that annoyed Cameron, who did, intensely) is admirable.
Damian McBride has written a memoir which (after some dry early chapters) is highly readable. He undoubtedly did his bit to ensure the success of the last government, yet the excess of spin and false briefing which he played a part in undoubtedly ultimately proved pernicious and self destructive.
Nor do I share his view that the Blair/Brown rivalry helped the government, giving it an edge which McBride compares to the healthy competition between Pepsi and Cola at a time when there was no serious competition in town. In truth, the feud between the two leaders poisoned the mood of an otherwise successful government and was lucky not to split Labour as the Liberals were split in the 1920s.
Let us hope the potential familial rivalries between the brothers Miliband or even the husband and wife team of Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper do not prove as harmful to Labour in the future.

Michael Heseltine: the best Tory Prime Minister we never had?

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Before: it began with an envelope. As a schoolboy, the young Michael Heseltine mapped out his future. In his 20s, he would become a millionaire. In his 30s, he would become an MP. In his 40s, he would be on the Tory frontbench. By his 50s – between 1983 and 1993 – he would enter Downing Street.

Today, eighty year old Lord Heseltine claims not to remember this incident which comes from his friend, the late Julian Critchley, who also later served as a Tory MP. But his ambition was unquestionable. By the 1970s, Heseltine had achieved almost all of these ambitions. He was a multimillionaire and already a popular favourite at Tory Party Conferences.

“The government should go and if it had a shred of pride it would go today,” he raged in one 1976 speech about the Callaghan Government. “The reality…a one-legged army limping away from the storm they have created. Left, left – left, left, left!”

The audience roared as Heseltine limped across the stage.

It was all going so well. And then the career of Margaret Thatcher got in the way.

“Tarzan” as he became known maintained a high profile in the Eighties, first as Environment Secretary then AS Secretary of State for Defence. He espoused an early form of “compassionate conservatism” (a term that did not exist at the time) on touring Liverpool and combated CND protesters in a bomber jacket at one point. Both were good for publicity. However, both these and a 1970s incident in which he picked up the mace in the House of Commons, contributed to the Spitting Image stereotype of him as a swivel eyed loon.

The 1986 Westland affair precipitated a fatal personality clash with Thatcher. He stormed out so suddenly, that many present did not even know he had not resigned but gone to the loo. But he had quit. The next four years would be spent in the wilderness, waiting for Maggie to grow vulnerable enough for him to strike against her.

Thatcher recovered from Westland, saved in part by a long winded attack in the Commons by Labour’s Neil Kinnock. She won a third victory in 1987 but by 1990, Thatcher was acutely unpopular over the Poll Tax and mounting European divisions. Nigel Lawson, her Chancellor had resigned in 1989. When Geoffrey Howe followed in 1990 and unleashed an incredibly damaging resignation speech, Heseltine knew it was his time.

Opportunity 1: “He, who wields the dagger, rarely wears the crown”.

Heseltine challenged Thatcher. His own campaign was undermined by a somewhat arrogant attitude towards his fellow backbenchers. But the Thatcher camp made errors too. Thatcher won the first ballot but was two votes short of the number needed to win outright.

A second ballot was inevitable, foolishly, Thatcher pledged to fight on. Soon she was forced to resign.

Surely now was Hezza’s time? He had overthrown Thatcher just as she had overthrown Ted Heath in 1975. But Tories were shocked and angry at what had happened. The wounds have not entirely healed even today. A “Stop Heseltine” movement was formed. Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd and Chancellor John Major were drafted to fight Heseltine. The little known Major emerged triumphant.

Opportunity 2: Major catastrophe?

Heseltine returned to the Cabinet under Major as Environment Secretary. It was the same position he had held when Thatcher came to power in 1979. Eleven years on, he had toppled Thatcher but was back where he started. It must have been a bitter time.

However, the Major leadership soon proved vulnerable. Although Heseltine remained loyal throughout this period, opportunity never seemed far away. First, there was the 1992 General Election. Heseltine fought hard for the Tories and to his credit, he showed no signs whatsoever of wanting Labour to win.

Yet if they had, Heseltine would undeniably have been the frontrunner to succeed. And the Tories were widely expected to lose.

But the opinion polls were wrong. The Tories had won a fourth successive victory (although have never won again since). Heseltine was awarded with the position of President of the Board of Trade, the job he had coveted almost as much as Prime Minister.

But Major was not out of the woods yet. His premiership would soon prove a total disaster as the Tories lost their record for economic competence after Black Wednesday and fell into open civil war over the Maastricht Treaty. Sleaze would soon rear its ugly head too. Worst of all for the Tories, Labour started to get its act together first under John Smith and then after 1994, under Tony Blair.

Although a likeable character, Major proved a weak and decisive Prime Minister. His leadership remained under almost perpetual threat from the autumn of 1992 until the May 1997 General Election.

But who would succeed? Heseltine still looked strong but several points counted against him.

Firstly, Heseltine had courted unpopularity by overseeing the pit closures at the end of 1992. Also, many Tories still blamed him for Thatcher’s removal (she was now, at least in the House of Lords). But if it was Major’s pro-Europeanism that was giving him problems, Heseltine offered no solution. He was, if anything, more pro-European than his leader.

Even worse, health soon became an issue. Heseltine suffered a heart attack in the summer of 1993. His father had died the same way and though Heseltine soon made a full recovery, his age (he was now entering his sixties) had become an issue. The sudden death of John Smith, the Labour leader from a heart attack in May 1994 did not help.

Heseltine also now faced rivalry from Chancellor Ken Clarke and rising star of the Right Michael Portillo. But all had “issues” in the same way Heseltine did. Portillo (then in his early forties) was seen as too young. Clarke was too pro-European too. And Heseltine was too old. Perhaps this is why Major survived as long as he did even after openly inviting a leadership contest in 1995.

Major had expected his disgruntled ex-Chancellor Norman Lamont to stand against him. Instead, the Eurosceptic John Redwood did. Major won easily, removing the possibility that any of the big three leadership contenders would run. Heseltine was rewarded for his loyalty with the position of Deputy Prime Minister.

Perhaps Tory defeat was inevitable whoever the leader was by 1995. At any rate, John Major led the Tories to their biggest defeat of the century in May 1997. Major resigned soon after.

Opportunity 3: Last chance?

The Tory defeat in May 1997 was devastating. Labour won a majority of 179, a bigger victory than any achieved by Thatcher, Attlee or any other post war leader.

Unexpectedly, Michael Portillo also lost his seat. The way seemed clear now for Heseltine. A number of candidates stood: William Hague, Ken Clarke, Stephen Dorrell, Peter Lilley and Michael Howard. But Clarke was the only serious contender.

And yet, it was this point fate played a cruel trick. It was now that Heseltine suffered an attack of angina and announced he would not stand.

It was the end. He would never serve on the front bench again. Boris Johnson would succeed him as the MP for Henley on Thames in 2001.

Conclusions

Could Michael Heseltine have ever been Prime Minister?

Clearly, yes although several points went against him.

He would probably have won the Tory leadership had he been able to stand in May 1997. But would he have wanted it? The Tories had just been routed. Most estimates suggested it would take at least two elections to overturn the Labour majority (in fact it took three). Heseltine would have been close to seventy even before the next one in 2001 or 2002.

Perhaps 1995 would have been a better chance? But no. Heseltine would not have relished bringing down another Prime Minister. And General Election defeat in 1997 seemed inevitable even then. Even had he won in 1995 (by no means a sure thing), he would only have been Prime Minister for two years. Although even this was longer than he ultimately got.

Perhaps Heseltine’s best chance would have been not to have overthrown Thatcher at all. Thatcher would then have lost to Labour in 1992 leaving the leadership free for him.

But with Michael Heseltine close to sixty by then, it would have been a risky strategy. Perhaps like Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins and Tony Benn, he was just unfortunate that his political heyday coincided with that of Margaret Hilda Thatcher.

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The best (Labour) Prime Ministers we never had.

Who should have been Prime Minster but never got the chance?

(A Tory list is to follow shortly!)

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Hugh Gaitskell

(Life: 1906-1963. Chancellor of the Exchequer: 1950-51. Labour leader: 1955-1963)

The case for: With the exception of Neil Kinnock, no post-war politician has done the hardest job in British politics (Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition) for as long as Hugh Gaitskell did: over seven years. A youthful Chancellor during Attlee’s last days, Gaitskell had already made an enemy of the unofficial leader of the party’s Left Nye Bevan. Always a right winger in the party, Gaitskell struggled to prevent full blown civil war within the party both before and after their heavy 1959 General Election defeat despite a tearful conference address in which he pledged to “fight and fight again” to save the party he loved. Tragically, just as Labour seemed to be finally pulling together, Gaitskell suddenly fell ill and died in early 1963. His successor Harold Wilson, boosted by Tory chaos after the Profumo Affair, led Labour back into power in October 1964. Many, particularly acolytes like George Brown and Roy Jenkins felt it should have been Hugh. Or failing that, them.

The case against: To be fair, the public never loved Gaitskell. He led Labour to defeat in 1959 and might have done again in 1964. As an adulterer himself (he was having an affair with James Bond creator Ian Fleming’s wife – some even suspected Gaitskell was poisoned by the KGB) he might have lacked moral authority during the Tories’ Profumo sex scandal. Wilson himself, indeed, only won power himself very narrowly after his election as leader prompted a surge in Labour popularity. Would Gaitskell have done the same?

The verdict: We will never know.

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Roy Jenkins

(Life: 1920-2002. Home Secretary 1965-1967. 1974-1976. Chancellor of the Exchequer: 1967-1970. EEC President: 1977-1981. SDP leader: 1982-1983)

The case for: Jenkins’ spell as Home Secretary must rank as one of the most successful ministries ever. In just a few short years, he oversaw the abolition of capital punishment, ended the death penalty, legalised homosexuality and liberalised the abortion and divorce laws. Few politicians changed British life as much as he did.

The case against: With his posh manner, liking for the fine things in life and speech impediment “Woy” Jenkins was often described as “nature’s old Etonian” even though unlike his colleagues Michael Foot, Denis Healey and Tony Benn, he was actually from genuine working class stock, in fact a Welsh mining community. But his position as a right wing pro-European was unfashionable at the time. He scored poorly in the 1976 leadership contest following Wilson’s resignation and after a spell as President of the EEC returned as a founder member of the breakaway Social Democratic Party in 1981. The SDP really did seem set to win power for a period in 1981, but a combination of internal feuding, Thatcher’s Falklands victory and an unfair electoral system saw them perform badly in 1983, scoring almost as many votes as Labour but scarcely any seats. Jenkins advised Tony Blair on electoral reform  as a Lib Dem peer in old age (Blair ignored him) and wrote numerous biographies of Gladstone and Asquith amongst others.

The verdict:  He never led Britain but undoubtedly changed the nation more than many who have.

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Denis Healey.

(Born: 1917. Defence Secretary: 1964-1970. Chancellor of the Exchequer: 1974-1979. Deputy Labour leader: 1981-1983).

The case for: Healey was a familiar figure on TV in the Seventies and Eighties, famed not only for his distinctive eyebrows and sense of humour but also for his formidable intellect, debating power and competence. An ex-communist and (like Jenkins) a Second World War veteran, Healey oversaw the British military disengagement “East of Suez”  in the Sixties and endured a rocky ride as Chancellor during the IMF Crisis, famously turning his car away from the airport where he was planning a conference trip abroad when the crisis grew too severe. In fact, the loan was later recognised as unnecessary and due to a treasury error. After Labour’s 1979 defeat, many were astonished when the elderly scruffy and untelegenic left winger Michael Foot beat the only slightly younger but far more popular Healey for the Labour leadership in 1980. Did the members planning to defect to the SDP vote for Foot in the hope of strengthening their cause? A few votes would have made all the difference. At any rate, Foot though a decent and highly intellectual man proved a disastrous leader. The party split, the new SDP rejecting Labour’s new anti-nuclear and anti-EEC positions. Healey himself fought off a serious left wing challenge for the Deputy leadership from Tony Benn in 1981. Both Labour and the SDP performed disastrously in the 1983 election. But Healey, to his credit, never deserted Labour.

The case against: Healey would have almost certainly fared better as Labour leader than Foot did after 1980 and may well have prevented the damaging SDP split. But whether even he could have prevented Margaret Thatcher being returned in the post-Falklands 1983 election (winning a majority of 144) is open to question. Particularly as Healey could sometimes be quite gaffe prone during elections accusing Thatcher of “glorifying in slaughter” in 1983 and suggesting the Russians wanted a Labour victory before the 1987 contest.

The verdict: The best Prime Minister we never had? Perhaps. Lord Healey has now outlived virtually all of his ex-colleagues and rivals. He is ninety six.

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John Smith

(Life: 1938-1994. Labour leader: 1992-1994).

The case for: Labour was at a very low ebb indeed when John Smith was elected leader in July 1992. Labour had just suffered her fourth defeat, this time during a recession. Many doubted Labour would ever win again. As leader, Smith projected an air of competency which Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock had always lacked. Though his election as leader generated less excitement than Blair’s did in 1994, his strong often witty Commons performances, his success in abolishing the union block vote and the total Tory collapse after Black Wednesday, the pit closures, Back to Basics, the Maastricht Tory civil war and Tory sleaze made a Labour victory in 1996 or 1997 inevitable. His sudden death following a heart attack in May 1994 triggered a period of genuine mourning.

The case against: As the architect of Labour’s unpopular tax plans, Shadow Chancellor Smith is sometimes blamed for Kinnock’s 1992 election defeat. He was also accused of being too laidback as leader and effectively hoping victory would fall into his lap. However, despite no New Labour-esque attempts to woo business or the press, in 1994 Smith’s strategy seemed to be working.

The verdict: The Tory disintegration was so total under John Major that had Smith lived it is almost inconceivable that he would not have become Prime Minister. Had he lived, he would now be seventy five.

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David Miliband

(Born: 1965. Foreign Secretary: 2007-2010).

The case for: Despite being the more experienced, better known and older of the two Miliband brothers, David narrowly lost the 2010 leadership contest to his brother Ed despite winning more votes from MPs and party members.

The case against: Although probably better on TV than his brother, David has endured image issues too (notably the “Banana Incident”) and lacked the killer instinct to take a stance for or against Gordon Brown at critical times in government. But ultimately his Blairism and (like Hilary Clinton in 2008) his support for the Iraq War and somewhat arrogant manner probably cost him victory.

The verdict: Unproven. Ed Milband seems neither as bad as his detractors say, nor his brother as good. And with David Miliband still under fifty, he could yet make a comeback. True, he’s not an MP. But then neither is Boris Johnson (who is the same age). The tragedy is that as brothers neither can easily serve under the other.

 

Buggers can’t be choosers: Book review: Enders’s Game by Orson Scott Card

 

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“Give us a child until he is seven and we will give you the man”.

This attitude behind this Jesuit mantra prevails throughout this science fiction novel by the Mormon author Orson Scott Card. Set in a far future in an environment where humanity is under threat from a Starship Troopers-style alien menace named Buggers (yes, really), the novel sees the child Ender Wiggin recruited as a cadet at the Battle  School

We then see him go through the dehumanising effects of military training. Each chapter begins with a dialogue between two of Ender’s recruiters through whom we become aware that Ender is, in fact, something akin to a military genius.

It is an odd book, not least because so many of the main characters seem to be incredibly advanced young children.  Enders’s brother and sister, for example, rather bizarrely achieve a position of political dominance back on Earth through the internet despite still being in early childhood.

First written in 1985 (and updated substantially by Card since then to take into account the collapse of the USSR) and should make a good film when it is released in the UK late in October 2013, perhaps ranking alongside other decent sci-fi movies of 2013 such as Oblivion, Elysium and Gravity.

Sadly, Card – unlike his fellow Mormon author Twilight’s Stephanie Meyer – may have harmed the film’s prospects by revealing his homophobic views to the world. Mitt Romney woudl presumably give Card the thumbs up for this but few others will.

This is a shame. Perhaps it is unsurprising Orson Scott Card decided to name his villains “Buggers”.

But there is little to offend anyone in this novel.