Steve Richards: Charles Clarke was too loyal in government and is now proving too disloyal out of it

For now, he is trapped by the announcement made by the PM that he would not serve a full term
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The Independent Online

Until his dismissal from the Home Office, Mr Clarke was the most articulate advocate of the case for Mr Blair remaining in office. Mr Clarke argued persistently that Mr Blair had an important agenda of reform to implement. In his view, the autumn of 2008 was the earliest desirable departure date. There was so much more for Mr Blair to do.

Now that Mr Clarke has lost his job, he could hardly pop up and declare that he had changed his mind entirely. So he argued instead that Mr Blair had lost his sense of purpose, but he hoped the Prime Minister would regain it. Mr Clarke had hit upon his own third way, giving interviews that did not contradict explicitly his previous proclamations of enduring faith in the Prime Minister, while ensuring that further intense questions were raised about whether Mr Blair could survive for much longer.

Mr Clarke is an astute politician. His carefully worded interventions have worked. Yet all that has changed since his previously more flattering assessment of the Prime Minister is that he is no longer Home Secretary. I happen to believe that Mr Clarke was a good Home Secretary in unusually challenging circumstances. Indeed, I was one of the few commentators arguing that he should not be sacked.

Even so, a brutal personal setback for Mr Clarke is not enough evidence to justify such a sweeping change of judgement about Mr Blair's sense of purpose. Although, wisely, Mr Clarke gave long interviews this week in which he expanded more subtly, the essence of his case seemed to be: Mr Blair was a great reformer. He sacked me. He is no longer a great reformer.

There can be only two explanations for this change of heart. Perhaps Mr Clarke was more critical than he let on when he was in government. To his credit, he was more rounded than some ministers, daring to raise questions of Mr Blair's more panic-induced initiatives. Perhaps there was part of him that wondered quite where the Government was heading when he was still a leading member. Alternatively, he simply changed his mind on the basis of his dismissal. Perhaps it was a combination of the two explanations. In government he was too loyal. Now he risks being too disloyal.

Mr Clarke's stated concerns are also unconvincing. He warns that Mr Blair lacks a sense of energetic direction. This is clearly not the case. Mr Blair has never had a greater sense of purpose and direction. From Europe to crime, his recent speeches have partly had a valedictory air, but they also burst with policies for the future. I get the impression that Mr Blair is going through a phase in his career where he has 10 new ideas before breakfast. If this were 1997 rather than 2006, the media would be hailing his energetic dynamism and running long, flattering profiles on the Downing Street advisers as they come up with new ideas.

Mr Blair has also recently devised a new way of communicating thoughts and ideas. It is highly effective, and should be followed by his successor. He gives a talk and then answers questions from informed and critical audiences. To its credit, Downing Street publishes some of the criticisms on its website. Mr Blair ranges widely and is interrogated intensively. There are no obvious soundbites. Mr Blair's tone is more engagingly discursive.

Mr Blair does not lack direction or verve. His problems relate to his narrow definition of what constitutes reform and the context in which he proclaims his mission. Too much time in recent speeches has been taken up reflecting on the implicit failures of the Government. They raise awkward questions for those ministers who are not contemplating their departure from the front line. Has it not got to grips with crime until now? Has it failed to reform public services fast enough?

As one of the most insightful ministers put it to me yesterday, the speeches are closer to the contents of a memoir in which a leader reflects more candidly on his legacy. They make for illuminating reading, but are hardly helpful for those who hope to continue when Mr Blair has gone. The Conservatives scream about nine wasted years. Mr Blair's recent speeches inadvertently reinforce the scream.

But it is the context that is deadly. Mr Blair is functioning beyond his natural political life. It was almost over in the late spring of 2004, when he came close to resigning. In the autumn of that extraordinary year he bought more time by pledging not to serve a fourth term. This was not a crude political error, as some have argued subsequently. Instead, at a point of political weakness, Mr Blair acquired additional time by stealth. Now that additional time is close to expiring. Probably Mr Clarke knows this, but cannot say so yet because of his previous proclamations that Mr Blair should serve close to a full term.

On my way to chair a meeting with Mr Clarke at last year's Labour conference, I bumped into Neil Kinnock. I told the former party leader that I hoped partly to explore with Mr Clarke the importance of the 1980s, and whether his direct involvement as Mr Kinnock's closest aide made him different to other ministers. Without pausing, Mr Kinnock told me: I know the answer. We all went through hell and that makes you bloody tough. Mr Clarke will be back. He is bloody tough. His response to the provocations of the current Home Secretary was also a reminder that he will be missed in that particular post. During his tenure Mr Clarke faced the complex challenge of Downing Street's fearful interventions and the media's contradictory demands for politicians to protect the public while attacking ministers for interfering by introducing tougher laws. At least he avoided crude populism and easy attacks on judges.

But for now, Mr Clarke is trapped by the announcement made by the Prime Minister that he would not serve a full term. In cabinet, Mr Clarke felt compelled to interpret this generously. Mr Blair, fizzing with Prime Ministerial ideas, is also trapped by that announcement and yet cannot resist making speeches with policy implications for decades to come. The Labour party is trapped too. All of them can escape only when Mr Blair announces his departure.

Some newspapers reported yesterday that Mr Blair is discussing with Mr Brown how to handle the transition at the party conference in the autumn. The first Mr Brown heard about this was the night before the reports were published. No such talks have taken place. For now, they are all still trapped.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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