Ken Clarke's secret fan club

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We are used to the Tories trumpeting the health of the economy and the skills of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but it is a surprise when the political enemy joins in. Though their praise is not nearly as loud as that of the Government's propagandists, if you've been listening closely over the past year you will have heard it. For Labour is home to a growing band of discreet devotees: Ken Clarke's secret admirers.

Among his more open Opposition supporters is a distinguished array of eminent Labour economists. Meghnad Desai, professor at the London School in Economics, once economic adviser to John Smith and a former spokesman for the party in the House of Lords, is an outspoken cheerleader for Chancellor Ken: "We've had the best three years of economic growth almost ever, due to a combination of common sense and boldness on the part of Kenneth Clarke. He's been quite brilliant."

John Wells, lecturer in economics at Cambridge and a former Labour adviser, is another unabashed enthusiast: "The man has a degree of self-confidence that Gordon Brown lacks. Brown is probably terribly insecure about his grasp of economics, while Clarke is prepared to follow his intuitions and isn't afraid to stand up to people. He's also a bit more of a Keynesian, too."

Professor David Currie, director of the Centre for Economic Forecasting, ex-Treasury "wise man" and a newly-ennobled Labour peer, also congratulates Clarke: "While I think the interest-rate cut last May was perhaps wrong in hindsight, one has to say that the economy has been well run over the past three years."

Gerald Holtham, director of the Institute of Public Policy Research, a left-leaning think-tank, is yet another Labour figure who acknowledges a job well done. "I'd say I was respectful rather than an admirer, but I give credit where it's due and I give it openly. Clarke was dead right to continue with the fiscal tightening started by Norman Lamont, and in terms of macroecomonic theory I give him very high marks. Up to now, he's done pretty well - though he could always do something disastrous in this Budget."

Economists - even when they are Labour lords - rest their reputations on hard-headed, objective analysis, and so tend to be above the party political fray. When it comes to the Parliamentary Labour Party, membership of the Chancellor's unofficial fan club is a more private affair. Austin Mitchell is one of the few Labour MPs devoted (or just plain reckless) enough to admit it. "Oh yes, I am a fan," he cheerily confirms. "Ken's got panache, and a greater ability to take risks and get away with them than any previous Chancellor, Labour or Tory."

Most MPs only reveal their feelings off the record. "He's done a great job," raves one. The post-election fantasy of another, meanwhile, extends way beyond the standard speculation at Westminster on Lib-Lab co-operation in a hung parliament. "If we win, I'd love for him to stay on as our Chancellor," is his secret wish. "Gordon Brown is so orthodox that I think he's going to be awful. And Ken's more left-wing than Gordon, of course."

Such closet treachery is not confined to the powerless back-benches, either. Take the following blunt response, from a frontbench spokesman when asked if he expects the Shadow Chancellor's handling of the economy to match Clarke's: "No. Gordon doesn't have the economic grasp that Clarke has." Or even this, from a Shadow Cabinet member. "I think I'd rather have Clarke as my Chancellor any day, but if you say I said that, I'll sue."

To some in the Conservative Party, these compliments merely confirm their worst suspicions about Clarke. They mutter similar things: "He's more left-wing than Brown!"

You wouldn't know it from the carping by Euro-sceptics and malcontents on the Tory benches, but in a government that has lurched from crisis to crisis, Ken Clarke stands out as an unalloyed success. Over the past 41/2 years, inflation has been at its lowest sustained level for half a century. Unemployment has been falling every month since March 1993, and looks set to drop below two million in the new year. Bumper tax receipts for October have put the Treasury back on track to meet its forecast for the public sector borrowing requirement this year - confounding most observers. Prices are rising modestly, mortgage rates are low, growth looks steady and consumers are spending with renewed confidence.

Less than a year ago, Labour was counting on the economy being a strong card in its favour come election time. Now it is the one thing that may help the Tories to claw back some of their lead in the opinion polls. If John Major does end up hanging on to power next May, it will be Clarke wot won it.

There are other reasons for the secret admiration from Labour. Not only has Clarke resisted right-wing pressure for a slash-and-burn approach to public spending, he has also issued stout defences of the welfare state at a time when doing so is increasingly unfashionable on both sides of the House.

It would be grossly misleading to suggest that the entire Parliamentary Labour Party are paid-up members of the Ken Clarke fan club. Labour's official line is that Clarke has been a disaster, and even some of Brown's backbench critics agree. Roger Berry, a lecturer in economics before he came to the Commons, is one of those who refuse to be impressed. "Clarke's been very clever at disguising the fact that the recovery he's presided over is nothing other than the result of the complete failure of the economic policy the Tories went into the 1992 election with - maintaining the value of the pound within the ERM," he insists. He is right, up to a point, though Berry's critique is somewhat spoilt by the fact that Labour fought the election on exactly the same policy.

In style, Clarke and Brown are chalk and cheese. Brown is buttoned up and grimly intent on maintaining a sober, strictly orthodox approach in order to prove his fiscal rectitude. Clark is far more at ease: brash, and confident enough to face down all-comers, even the Governor of the Bank of England.

Would Brown have done the same, Labour MPs ask themselves. If he had, would the City react as calmly as it did when Clarke, against all advice from the Bank of England, cut interest rates in May? (The Governor later confessed that Clarke had been right. Even more galling for Labour, the International Monetary Fund singled out Clarke's stewardship of the economy for praise soon after.) No one can know for sure what Brown would be like in office. But neither will they hazard a guess. "I do hope when Gordon is Chancellor he will be as bold as Clarke has been. But I wonder whether he will be," muses Lord Desai.

In the Commons pre-election war of words, the Chancellor can take comfort from the fact that, in their hearts, some of those sitting opposite secretly adore him.