If only the politics were right

The Government yesterday used a record-breaking fall in the jobless total to claim that the economy was roaring ahead.

But Kenneth Clarke promptly cast a cloud over the good news with an outspoken attack on the Tory Euro-sceptic myth-makers.

Illustrating the central Conservative frustration, that the party's deep political divisions on Europe divert electoral attention from the Government's success in curbing unemployment and inflation, the Chancellor directly challenged the dissidents within his party.

Earlier, ministers fell over each other to welcome a record-breaking plunge in the number of people claiming unemployment benefit, and a fall in the headline jobless total to below two million for the first time in almost six years.

John Major, on a visit to Northern Ireland, said: "Brit-ain's economy is now the lion that roars in Europe."

But Mr Clarke delivered a lecture in which he protested about the doubts that continued to nag away at EU membership. "Today, we are becoming prey to a mythology that we joined only an economic community, with no serious political dimension, and that the purpose of our membership was uniquely economic," he said in a lecture at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. "That is not the case." Mr Clarke said former Tory premiers Harold Macmillan, Sir Alec Douglas Home and Edward Heath had all argued that membership would enhance the political standing of the UK.

He added: "Europe offers us a growing opportunity to excel economically, and the best is yet to come." However, he warned: "Our continuing and future economic success, exploiting the opportunities of our enterprise economy, depends to a significant degree on Britain being and staying a key player in the politics of our Continent."

At a press conference on the latest jobless total, for last month, Mr Clarke was one of six ministers playing Santa Claus. They said Britain's jobs performance was the best in Western Europe. Growth was strong and sustainable, the Chancellor said, adding: "And I'm glad to say it has given more jobs to more people in time for Christmas." He said voters would have to ask themselves whether they wanted to risk a change to Labour's economic policies.

Ian Lang, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, said the advantages of the UK's flexible and efficient labour market would be threatened if a Labour government signed up to the EU's Social Chapter and introduced a minimum wage.

Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, said other European countries would take a lead from Britain. "Confidence in the British economy is growing and growing," he said.

The number of unemployment benefit claimants fell by 95,800 in November, the biggest monthly fall since the early 1960s. The headline figure was swollen by at least 25,000 with the introduction of the Jobseeker's Allowance, and Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, conceded that unemployment would not be falling as much every month. Labour picked on the admission as proof of another fiddle. Its employment spokesperson Ian McCartney said more people believed in Santa than believed the Government's unemployment figures.

However, economists said yesterday's figures were evidence of a buoyant jobs market, despite the distortions. The number of new jobs has increased according to the latest evidence, although many are part-time.

This was underlined by the announcement yesterday that the restaurant chain Pizza Hut will create 5,000 posts - a mix of part- and full-time - over the next four years.

Separate official figures confirmed that high street sales have remained buoyant. Last month saw an especially strong gain in sales related to the housing market, and in clothing and footwear.

Although the economy's pick-up has not brought much sign so far of wage and price pressures, the City concluded yesterday that a small increase in base rates is on the cards for the New Year. But Mr Clarke said a rise in interest rates was not inevitable. "Things have never been set so fair for the immediate future," he said.

Later, in his lecture, the Chancellor said: "People do not invest in Britain, they do not acquire our companies, they do not create new jobs in this country, just because they like to play golf or practise their English.

"They do it because they see Britain as a high-skill, low-tax, flexible, business-friendly entry-point into the big, rich consumer market place which is Europe today."

Mr Clarke said Britain and Europe went together for foreign investors, as they should for the British people. One led to the other and, as on the home front, good economics and good politics went hand in hand in Europe.

"As a country," Mr Clarke said, "we cannot choose to live by the European market-place economically and then exclude ourselves from the discussion of the political future of our Continent.

"That is the path of those who would seek British withdrawal from the EU, or a fundamental renegotiation of our membership terms. It is one which we rightly reject."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine