A popular busker reaches the big time

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The Independent Online
IT IS fairly typical of Kenneth Clarke that, shortly after being appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer on Thursday morning, he should have taken the civil servants in his private office out to a local pub in Victoria for a couple of celebration pints. Clarke, who went straight on from the pub to get his first briefing from the Treasury mandarins, doesn't have to work at being a populist. It comes naturally.

True, he is a Garrick Club member and, the following day, he not only wore the club's salmon and green tie (over a blue cotton shirt, to the fury of the fashion writers) but even took his successor, Michael Howard, to lunch there. But, asked where he wants to eat, Clarke is more likely to choose a Spanish restaurant in a scruffy part of south London than the Savoy Grill, Wilton's or the other haunts favoured by his colleagues.

This populism will no doubt stand him in good stead as a communicator at the Treasury. But for a politician who rarely turns down a television interview, he has been uncharacteristically silent this weekend.

From Friday night, he put his home telephone on the answering machine in Nottingham and started to study a bewildering mass of Treasury briefs. He and his wife Gillian, an intelligent, unpretentious and liberal Cambridge graduate, will move into No 11 when Lamont moves out.

At the Department of Trade and Industry he had a reputation for 'busking it', using his agile lawyer's mind to pick up briefs at speed - once strolling into the office of his boss, Lord Young, an hour before he was due to make a complex Commons statement on Rover, to find out 'what it was all about'. But this is the big time. You can't, as Clarke well knows, busk the Treasury.

Clarke has views on most political issues. He comes from the left-wing, pro-European wing of the party. He was a founder member of Nick's Diner, the club formed in the early Seventies, as he cheerfully told its 20th anniversary dinner, to 'stop Ted Heath becoming too right-wing'.

While his classlessness - for all the extravagant publicity lavished on his aristocratic special adviser Tessa Keswick last week - resembles that of John Major, his activist approach to politics in some ways resembles Mrs Thatcher's. (At the turn of the year he argued fiercely within Cabinet that the Government should not be deterred by its small majority from continuing with a programme of radical reform, quoting his proposals for the police as an example).

Some critics thought that his enthusiastic prosecution of Margaret Thatcher's NHS reforms were a deliberate attempt to court the right.

The truth was a little more complicated. For example he fought in vain against Thatcher's insistence that tax breaks should be given to elderly people who used private health care, although that move was favoured at the time by right-wing MPs.

He was, however, wholehearted in a fight against what he saw as the vested interests of the British Medical Association, treating it more as a trade union than a professional association that should be courted.

It was perhaps a matter of satisfaction to him that his political hero since Cambridge days, Ian Macleod, had also clashed with the BMA when he was Minister of Health. Macleod also became Chancellor, refused to serve under Lord Home, and was the man Harold Wilson most feared as a potential Tory leader.

It was, moreover, Clarke who went further than any of his colleagues in November 1990 in confronting Thatcher head-on. He not only told her to her face that it would be 'like the charge of the Light Brigade' if she stood in the second ballot. Having, by his own account, a 'very high embarrassment threshold', he made it clear that he would resign if she didn't.

Nevertheless, he repositioned himself deftly on the exchange rate mechanism, announcing in a well-timed interview with David Frost earlier this month on BBC television that he could not see Britain rejoining the ERM in this Parliament. Few MPs doubt that this was to make him more acceptable to the Tory right. It provoked one admirer to ask: 'Wasn't it Robert Peel who said the intellectually honest statesman changes his opinions rather than his principles?'

But while some MPs have assumed that he will be more inclined to put up direct taxes than his predecessor would have been, in order to keep borrowing down, they may be wrong.

It is true that he probably does not share the ideological dedication of the right to continual reductions in the rate of income tax. But there are several reasons why he is more likely to bear down heavily on spending in preference.

First, unlike his predecessor he remains a candidate, at present the most plausible candidate, to succeed John Major in the event of a vacancy. Typically, he does not attempt to disguise his ambition, but adds that he expects to end up, like many others, a prime minister who never was. So he must continue to bear in mind the sullen, watchful constituency, now augmented by Lamont himself, on the Tory right.

Second, he will have in harness Michael Portillo, the Thatcherite Chief Secretary whose ideological commitment to lower state spending is firm, rigid even. And third, he is surprisingly hawkish in his personal views on public spending. In the mid-1980s, when unsettled spending claims were regularly referred for adjudication to a 'Star Chamber' of cabinet ministers who had already settled, Clarke, in partnership with Lord Tebbit, is still remembered as particularly ferocious in taking apart the claims of his colleagues.

Neverthless, he will think about the politics of what to cut. He has never worked in the Treasury before, unlike most of his recent predecessors Philosophically he differs from both Lawson and Lamont in some ways - he will, for example, be more likely to form an alliance with Michael Heseltine on revitalising manufacturing industry. But he shares many Treasury dislikes - against tax breaks and VAT exemptions, for example. He likes a scrap - indeed Michael Howard, whose promotion is the other significant event of last week, is likely to adopt a more conciliatory tone with the police, though without ditching the Clarke reforms. He is however a pragmatist rather than an ideologue. He has 'bottom' - that legendary quality much beloved of Tories. It's not too much to say the party's hopes of revival now lie with him.

(Photograph omitted)