Charles Clarke: 'Rumours of Blair quitting in favour of Gordon Brown are nonsense'

The Monday Interview: Secretary of State for Education and Skills
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The Independent Online

Charles Clarke had just returned to his office after listening on the car radio to the political editor of the BBC speculating on Tony Blair's departure. "Bollocks! It's complete bollocks," was his verdict.

Charles Clarke had just returned to his office after listening on the car radio to the political editor of the BBC speculating on Tony Blair's departure. "Bollocks! It's complete bollocks," was his verdict.

"I don't normally criticise Andrew Marr, but that is just such blah..." The Education Secretary makes a face demonstrating he does not share Marr's view that the Prime Minister may be about to go.

Mr Clarke, 53, is seen as a cabinet minister who has a lot to lose if Mr Blair does make way for Gordon Brown. The Chancellor is said not to have forgiven Mr Clarke for allegedly telling one of Mr Blair's biographers that a Brown leadership would be a disaster.

He has also hinted that he would not let Mr Brown have a clear run for the crown if Mr Blair did decide to spend more time with his family.

His dismissal of reports that Mr Blair may step down after the local and European elections sounded like those of a man wishing it to be untrue. And he admitted that he may be "isolated" from the mood in the party.

It is disconcerting for a cabinet minister not to be sure what is going on at Westminster, and few have the confidence of Mr Clarke to admit that, for once, the media might be right. Yet he feels sure, or at least he hopes, that the media are wrong.

"It's nonsense," he said. "Gossip implies that people are actually chatting about it. It is a pure invented thing. I don't normally put Andrew Marr in this category but that is really what is going on. There was a good mood at the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] when I did a presentation [about the five-year education strategy]. The feeling in the backbench group is good. The mood in the lobby is OK. At Prime Minister's questions, I thought Tony was pretty clear. But maybe I am completely isolated.

He scoffed at a report on the front page of The Guardian report that the Chancellor's two meetings in as many days last week with Rupert Murdoch were evidence of Mr Brown's manoeuvring for the leadership. Mr Clarke admits he had a meeting with Irwin Steltzer, Mr Murdoch's go-between in Britain. "I saw Irwin Steltzer five or six months ago. Am I doing a thing with Murdoch on the leadership? No. It's all nonsense."

The issue of the leadership was not raised in the cabinet room last Thursday. "We had a report on the local government elections. We had a report on the international position, Iraq, elections - but no. It's just not a thing we discussed."

The purpose of our interview was to discuss Labour's "Big Conversation", which Mr Clarke will address in Tilbury today. The fact that it took us 20 minutes to get on to education underlines the difficulty that Mr Blair will have in focusing on the domestic agenda on which he says he wants to fight the next election.

Mr Clarke is one of the "big hitters" in the Cabinet. Sometimes he has taken on his own colleagues - on top-up fees for students, for example. He normally has the Prime Minister's support but was seething at not being consulted about Mr Blair's U-turn on the referendum for a European constitution.

We discuss a graph, which is circulating in the Department of Education, which - amazing as this may seem - shows that even at the age of two, children can have their progress assessed (partly by noting how much they are talking). It shows that children from well-off backgrounds, even if they are not so bright, do better than those from deprived backgrounds, even if they are very bright.

"What this says is that if a child by the age of two is already lagging behind children of the same age, in terms of their social ability, it is hard to make that up in later life. It is not an inevitable rule, but it is a big disadvantage," he said.

The findings echo those of ITV's Seven Up series in which a group of children from different social backgrounds were interviewed when they were seven and every seven years thereafter.

Mr Clarke believes the findings for children under five bears out the value of the Government's SureStart programme, which is spearheading nursery provision, and which the Conservatives have criticised. About £700m is being spent on working parents through the working tax credit. It is supposed to provide free help for all, but it is one of the Chancellor's redistributive projects, targeted at the less well off. Mr Clarke says the challenge is to "generalise" SureStart for all, but he concedes that the way to tackle the inequalities in education present at 24 months is to aim SureStart more at the poor with 1,500 children's centres in the most deprived wards.

"The biggest practical problem is the children's workforce. Large numbers of people are working with children with different levels of training, starting sometimes at very low levels indeed of training and pay. It will take years and years, but we think by organisation, starting with the deprived wards, we have a sporting chance of pushing standards up."

Today's Big Conversation will also focus on the transition from primary school to secondary school. He is concerned that children feel daunted by going to a bigger school. I ask innocently whether this is how he felt when he moved from primary to secondary? The Education Secretary darts me a sharp look. "I do remember my transition from primary to secondary school, but I was fortunate. As you know, I went to a private school."

The Education Secretary - whose father, Sir Richard "Otto" Clarke was permanent secretary at the ministry of technology - was a foundation scholar at Highgate School in north London before going to King's College, Cambridge, where he secured a BA Honours.

He has never been one to suffer fools gladly. A pair of yellow boxing gloves sits on his office sideboard as testimony to his reputation for enjoying a verbal punch-up. But he avoided becoming the punch-bag for teachers who resent his creation of more classroom assistants by ducking the annual conference of the National Union of Teachers at Easter.

He announced last week that taxpayers' money could be given to the independent sector. Some of his cabinet colleagues resent the idea, feeling that Mr Clarke - a former chief of staff to Neil Kinnock, when he was the Labour leader - has sold out to the Blairites demanding "more choice" in the search for votes from the middle classes. Mr Clarke is also likely to upset pupils today. To prevent bad behaviour by schoolchildren when they leave the school gates, they should stay on the campus over lunchtime, he will say. "The heads are best placed to decide what suits their school, but I would prefer pupils to stay on campus at lunch unless there is a good reason not to be," he said. "When I was at school, we certainly stayed on the school premises over lunchtime."

One of his assistants later telephoned to say: "Don't say Charles is going to lock up kids at lunchtime."

He wants to persuade pupils to stay in schools with study sessions, computer suites, school libraries, lunchtime clubs covering music, languages, and school council meetings. It is hard to believe that young tearaways will prefer that to hanging around the tobacconist.

Will there be new forms of punishment, I wondered. "I have not got new sanctions. I am not about to adopt the Kalashnikov approach," he replied.


Name: Charles Rodway Clarke,

Age: 53

Family: Married, two sons

Education: Highgate School, King's College, Cambridge.

Career: MP for Norwich South since 1997; School Standards minister 1998-99; Minister of State, Home Office 1999-2001; chairman of the Labour Party (cabinet, minister without portfolio) 2001-02; Secretary of State for Education since 2002