LEADING ARTICLE : Two gaffes and a travesty

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Poor old Ken Clarke. Two weeks ago he praised the efficiency of a long-closed steel works in Consett. This, said Labour, proved just how out of touch the Chancellor was. Yesterday he mentioned the nappy-making industry of Consett - regrettably also defunct. The Labour MP Hilary Armstrong felt that this "just confirms what we already know - it is time he was out of office". Time will tell whether Ms Armstrong is allowed to set such stringent tests of competence for her own colleagues, should they achieve office. If she does, Labour will go through ministers like nobody's business - Ken Livingstone may get a turn.

But the Greatest Gaffe of Clarke was Wednesday's admission on radio that there might not be a "feel-good factor" before the next election. Within hours calls by radio and television producers, agency reporters and newspaper correspondents had summoned up an army of critics to testify to the foolishness of Clarke.

Bill Cash, opinion once again outrunning comprehension, attacked the Chancellor for his negativity. "I am extremely disturbed," he said. We know, Bill, we know. His Tory colleague John Townend lamented: "We've spent too much and talked too much ... if we don't cut taxes before the next election, I don't think we've a hope in hell of winning it." The shadow chancellor, Gordon Brown, was jubilant: "He [the Chancellor] shows that he has no confidence in his economic policy." It was a great story.

Except that it ain't so. What the Chancellor had actually been talking about was the phenomenon of an economic recovery in which many paradoxically feel anxious and insecure. In the Eighties, the sense of personal threat was shared by relatively few. Today, most of us realise that our livelihoods are precarious. Jobs are no longer for life.

Last May the Chancellor showed that he was aware of the dimensions of the problem. Lecturing to the City University Business School, he spoke about these new fears and uncertainties. "It is our failure to adjust to the changes quickly enough that causes joblessness to increase as the overall wealth of the nation increases," he said. There was a need for more flexibility on the part of companies and individuals, supplemented by a strong welfare state. He was right.

This was the background to Wednesday's admission that "people aren't going to feel more secure, more comfortable ... for another couple of years at least ... It could go on through the Nineties." Then the false storm erupted, and within hours, Mr Clarke was reduced to issuing clarifications, replacing an important attempt to engage in the complexities of the modern world, with a sterile repetition of the party line.

The true story has been hijacked by journalists and others, and substituted with yet another fatuous, short-term Westminster row. Politicians will derive the lesson from it that, whatever else may be the best policy, it is not honesty. We much prefer Ken's gaffes.