CONTRACT WITH BRITAIN?: Squire Clarke v Heathcliff Brown

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The Chancellor increasingly reminds me of one of those liberal squires of 19th-century literature, usually played, in television adaptations, by Robert Hardy. Physically, with his luxuriant hair flopping down over his full face, and his jacket buttons straining at a generous midriff, he is the picture of rubicund health - an advertisement for the imbibing of port and the inhalation of tobacco.

In intellect, too, he is urbane, tolerant and enormously optimistic. And yesterday was supposed to be just another sunny day in the fertile dell that he inhabits, where it was time for a debate on the "summer economic statement". There he was in his salon, swapping parish tales with Canon Waldegrave until it was time to share the good news with those who wished to listen. We faced, he said, "an extremely attractive future, as the economy enters its fifth year of expansion". Enlightened, sensible policies were responsible for the coming cornucopia.

If Kenneth Clarke inhabits a elegant (if slightly messy) manor house and surveys the fertile fields and well-ordered villages around with an emotion bordering upon complacency, his shadow - Gordon Brown - dwells in another land altogether. Brown has his abode upon the bleak moors, where he sees sights that the sleek Clarke would rather ignore: record low investment, actual falls in manufacturing output, two-headed lambs born to all the ewes in farmer Firkin's flock. Aye, and worst of all, while out a'brooding Brown spotted a black hole at the heart of the government's finances.

This pessimism suits both Brown's political purpose, and his emerging character. With his wind-tossed locks, Armani model's jaw, curling lip and narrowing eyes, Brown needs only a pair of tight trousers and a tiny ponytail to become the troubled hero of economic debate - Heathcliff with an MBA.

In such wise did he come down off the storm-swept, barren hills and stand to accuse Squire Clarke of smugness and incompetence. And, worse, of harbouring intentions (as evidenced by the now famous leaked Treasury document) to sell off roads, pensions and lots more besides.

Squire Clarke's method of dealing with Brown in Olivier mode is always the same. He invites him into the parlour, asks after his health, advises him to cool his passion and wonders whether he wouldn't like to slip out of his wet clothes. In short he patronises the man he almost always refers to as "Gordon". "I have to tell him," he said avuncularly at one point, "about interest rates. Those are the things that as Chancellor you occasionally have to raise ..."

But Mr Brown wasn't having any. His eyes flashed. What, he demanded repeatedly, about the documents' reference to a policy for privatising the roads? And would Mr Clarke "also deal with the point that a meeting is taking place today, between the heads of 10 of Britain's largest insurance companies, at the Government's request, to discuss ways of their industry taking over responsibilities for the welfare state? What is going on?"

Now the squire was getting rattled. This was all a silly mistake, the result of a practical joke by some of the estate's stable lads. "It is not a policy document. It is not policy advice. It is written by a middle- ranking official in my department - grade seven - and the highest grade is grade one."

The House's guess was, that whatever the liberality of the Squire, this particular grade seven is destined never to see grade six. Particularly after the Squire's sly nephew (played by John Redwood) complimented him or her on starting a necessary debate. "Three cheers for the Treasury", he shouted. For a moment, Mr Clarke's affability appeared to desert him.