"Sorry I'm late. A slow train from Brighton." Charles Clarke appears in the Central Lobby of Parliament as if from nowhere. "Let's go to the Terrace." Before I have time to raise the wider implications of the appalling train service from Brighton we have arrived on the Terrace at a table overlooking the Thames. For a big politician Clarke moves fast, seemingly always in a hurry. Perhaps he should have walked from Brighton.
He will need to be quick on his feet in his new job. Clarke has been made party chairman at a time when his party is restless. Since his appointment, union leaders have flirted with the Liberal Democrats, Roy Hattersley has suggested Labour had been destroyed by a Blairite coup, Neil Kinnock has called for a new health tax and Tony Blair has endured a mauling at Prime Minister's Questions.
"The way Hattersley conducts himself, in his tone and sense of outraged betrayal, is hypocritical and not conducive to moving the debate forward. Roy demonstrates that his heritage is the cut and thrust of debates in the 1950s and 1980s when Labour was in opposition. Now we have defeated the Conservatives it is God-given scribes such as him who think it is their job to provide the opposition."
Hattersley is the main target of Clarke's cathartic anger. As head of Kinnock's office, Clarke worked closely with Hattersley, Kinnock's deputy for nine years. So is he surprised by his colleague's dissenting role? "No, not at all. I think he has a very high regard for himself and his place in the history of the party. This is a regard not always applied self-critically."
He has an entirely different response to Kinnock's intervention last week, making waves by repeating his call for a special health tax. "There's a strong case for earmarked taxes. The Government does a bit already with congestion charging going into the Transport budget. My view is that you cannot make the case for bigger taxes in public services unless people are sure the money is going on specific services.I think the debate will move forward in the direction of earmarked taxes."
If he believed there was a need, soon, for an NHS tax, would he make the case to a Chancellor who does not, exactly, seem to welcome interference from cabinet colleagues? "Yes I would. It is completely wrong to get in a mindset where no alternative views can come through and I do not believe that is the Government's mindset. This cabinet is up for ideas and discussion. Gordon Brown is up for ideas and discussion".
I must have looked surprised, as Clarke feels the need to offer a further qualified endorsement. "Gordon's one of the most intellectual politicians we've ever had. He doesn't always discuss ideas as widely as he might, but he wouldn't resist having conversations about earmarked taxes."
As for the most prominent of the recent rows, over the role of the private sector, there was nothing apparently for anyone to get worked up about. "The more people see the detail, the more there is common ground. The issue got highlighted during the election campaign. Some people think there was a spinning operation that went wrong. I don't think that happened, but the issue whirled away out of control. Tony Blair is not looking for a fight. The opposite is the case. We want to work closely with trade unions and others to improve and reform the public services."
I suggest to him that part of the reason for the current restlessness in his party is a sense that the Government is still being desperately cautious, especially over the euro. Indeed, some of the criticism against the Government began after the Chancellor's Mansion House speech in which he appeared to kick the euro into the long grass. Clarke insists that Brown's speech was misinterpreted. He offers the most positive ministerial statement on the euro since the election: "The euro remains the central issue of this Parliament. The assessment, of course, has to be made on the basis of national interest. We will not persuade voters on the basis of ideology alone. Some might say this means we are not serious about joining. On the contrary, it means we are very serious about it. To suggest that the Chancellor's speech was an anti-euro speech or an anti-Europe speech is a serious misreading."
To his credit, Clarke remains deeply disturbed by the low turnout at the election. He knows that his party has to show that "political action makes a difference". He also wants to challenge the media into reporting politics in a different way. "Some of the Newsnight reports are just ridiculous and arcane. Today lost its way very seriously during the election campaign. To take just one example, they interviewed Tony Martin from his prison cell as if to say 'It's we decide who sets the agenda on law and order'. But Martin was not the agenda-setting voice on crime in Britain. Some will blame us for the low turnout, but I would strongly argue that politicians swim in a media sea rather than the media swim in a political sea."
Clarke faces choppy waters whatever the metaphorical ocean. "I was taken aback when I was offered the job. I didn't even know the job was in the frame, let alone me doing it. There's a risk of being marginalised. But I am optimistic that I can play an important role bringing the Government and the party together."
Many would sink in such a potentially nebulous job. Clarke is big enough to make more of a splash.Reuse content