Clarke carries a 'tattered' flag

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The Independent Online
Ken Clarke still carries the tattered flag of decency in the Tory party. But the pincers are closing on him.

On the day he faced a conference frantic for personal tax cuts, the inflation figure for the year to September was announced as 3.9 per cent - and that is the figure that determines the uprating of benefits and pensions.

Yesterday we saw a Chancellor having to deal with a party which has been gripped by pre-electoral panic since the halfway mark of this parliament. It would have taken incredible political nerve for the Chancellor not to offer tax cuts in the forthcoming Budget. The 1922 Committee would tear him limb from limb. Yet there is no economic case at present for cuts in personal taxation, nor is it likely that they will buy the Tory party a political reprieve.

Clarke conceded yesterday that the tax cutters have won. We do not customarily think of Clarke as a coquettish politician, but he teased the conference with: "The time has come for some reward in the next Budget." That has taken him beyond the point of no return.

Even as the Chancellor enlarged on what he meant by a Budget that would be based on "traditional Tory values", he sought - poignantly, for me - to retrieve the irretrievable. It would be a Budget for "our people who want to send their children to good state schools and be cared for by the NHS... our people who have a social conscience and want a society that can earn the wealth to give others less fortunate a helping hand." It will be interesting to see how, in November, he reconciles the two propositions - near-term tax cuts and desperately needed increases in resources for key public services.

In the rest of his speech the Chancellor, in conformity with conference ritual, bashed Labour and bashed Blair. It was half-hearted stuff and evoked a half-hearted response.

We can hardly expect a party conference to be a seminar, yet it would be courteous to citizens watching on television, and possibly a better way to win favour, if Conservative ministers would treat us to some serious discussion. Ken Clarke simply asserted that a minimum wage and the social chapter would be damaging, but didn't begin to say why. Michael Howard said, at length, that criminals would spend longer in prison, and insisted again that "prison works". But he made no attempt to deal with the arguments against this. Labour's debates in Brighton were in a different league of constructive seriousness.

n Alan Howarth defected from the Conservatives to the Labour Party last week.