... and how the insiders rate him

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The Independent Online
A chancellor of the exchequer has no sterner critics than his mandarins. Despite the fact that the fundamental expenditure review Ken Clarke launched last December has axed a quarter of the senior jobs in the Treasury, he is seen in the department as a better than middling chancellor. One senior official says: ''He is intelligent, fast and has a clear idea about what he wants to achieve.'' A junior one adds: ''He's good fun. He won't necessarily remember your name, but he's very stimulating to work for.''

On the fun scale, Clarke is probably ahead of all other recent chancellors. Unlike Nigel Lawson, notorious for arriving very late at departmental parties and leaving after 10 minutes, Clarke gets there early and hangs on till the end, cracking jokes.

On a more serious assessment of the various incumbents, the civil servants are near unanimous. ''Everyone was very impressed with Denis Healey,'' says a long-serving official. The last Labour chancellor gets top marks for intellect, political stature, sense of fun - and economic strategy. It was Healey, after all, who introduced tight budget policies and monetary discipline.

Nigel Lawson is the clear runner-up. He shared with his Labour predecessor the power of intellect and political gravitas. A former private office official says: ''You could hold a very sophisticated economic discussion with him.''

The Conservatives' first chancellor, Geoffrey Howe, (1979-83), is spoken of in considerably more grudging terms. ''We didn't feel he was a Treasury natural,'' says one. ''Although he did have a great appetite for work - and for large gin and tonics."

John Major, incumbent for one brief year in 1989, falls some way behind Ken Clarke. That leaves as the class dunce Norman Lamont. The mandarins' verdict: ''One has natural reservations about somebody seen to be on their political deathbed. Lamont frittered away a lot of respect for the department.'' A chancellor whose credit card bills make the nation laugh will obviously not go down well in Whitehall.

The contrast with Norman Lamont helps explain the Treasury's embrace of Ken Clarke. A senior official says: ''There was a desire for a powerful figure. Clarke was seen as the only person who could do the job.''

As far as the department is concerned, he has done the job. Unless he turns out to be as gaffe prone as his predecessor, his Treasury score of B+ seems secure.