Profile: Completely unruffled by crisis: Kenneth Clarke, smarter and smarter still

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The Independent Online
The Rt Hon Kenneth Harry Clarke QC is the only minister to have done well out of the economic debacle of recent days. He has enhanced his standing at a time when the Prime Minister and most of his colleagues have been looking more than a little embarrassed and unconvincing.

Consider: on Monday morning the BBC contacted 10 Downing Street. Would the Prime Minister be available to appear on Panorama to discuss the economic crisis? The answer was no. But John Major's staff suggested an alternative. The Home Secretary was ready, willing and able to do the job.

Mr Clarke is a lawyer who has never served in the Treasury or held the top job in any industrial/economic department. But he had been called in by the Prime Minister to serve on the informal committee established in the final hours of the unsuccessful battle to save the pound. His nomination to the Panorama slot was taken by many commentators as a further signal of goodwill. Rumour had it that he was to be the next Chancellor.

By the end of the week, the signals were more ambiguous. Downing Street had nominated Michael Heseltine for a series of high-profile broadcasts. And then, on Thursday, Michael Portillo was proposed to speak for the Government on This Week. 'Our aim was to cover the waterfront and to confuse and confound the enemy by wheeling on a broad range of heavy hitters,' according to a government strategist. In any case, there would be no early vacancy at Number 11.

The Home Secretary prepared for his relentless badgering by David Dimbleby in characteristic style. Offered pre-broadcast briefings by the Treasury and the Foreign Office, he elected instead to pop out for a pint and a curry - Mr Clarke's equivalent of the Prime Minister's comforting fry-up. He performed well in the studio, losing neither his thread nor his temper. Moreover, he had smartened up his notoriously scruffy act. His suit was well cut and recently pressed. His shirt fitted, rather than bulged over a modest beer belly. His tie was in place, his hair was brushed with no hint of that flapping forelock. He exuded confidence, but it was of a crisp, cool kind. There was hardly a trace of that blustering, pugnacious, provincial cheekie chappie style that had become his trademark.

'Our Ken has been Folletted,' commented a colleague, referring to the restyling that Labour leaders underwent at the hands of Barbara Follett, the 'image projection consultant'. There is evidence of a conscious change. For example, the Home Secretary is addicted to what he describes in Who's Who as 'modern jazz music' and is an habitue of Ronnie Scott's club in Soho. There he has whiled away many a long night, puffing cheroots and drinking red house wine. Now he tells friends he has not been near the place for years. Once a man who enjoyed long lunches, Mr Clarke has instructed his diary secretary that he does not wish to eat out more than twice a week.

At the Home Office, senior civil servants say that instead of entering his first great department of state with fists flying after the general election, Mr Clarke is devoting more time to listening than to lecturing. 'It is as if he felt he had gone as far as he could as a genial bruiser,' said one official. 'He is smart enough to know that if he wants to go any higher, a little gravitas will not come amiss.'

Yet, characteristically, he has laid into two of the vested interests most feared by his new department - the Prison Officers' Association and the Police Federation - with all the force he employed on the British Medical Association (as Secretary of State for Health) and the teachers' unions (at Education). It was Mr Clarke's decision to privatise Strangeways prison, one of the toughest in the country, long dominated by the POA. He told the association that the Governor could bid for the franchise - but only if he had the support of the union.

The implication was that the prison would otherwise fall into the hands of a private company that might derecognise the POA or sack the existing officers and recruit non-union staff. So far the threat has worked, and the POA has unexpectedly agreed to co-operate in the privatisation exercise.

On Tuesday, the Home Secretary turned on the police. He said it was time for the service to start sacking incompetent officers. In context this was a another highly provocative proposition, but there was a surprising lack of anger from the Police Federation. Mr Clarke's reputation as the thinking man's thug had preceded him to the Home Office. If (a very big if) Mr Clarke does succeed in modernising our outdated and intolerable prisons and restores public confidence in the police, he will be remembered as one of the great reforming home secretaries.

He can lay claim to the humblest background of any member of the Cabinet - with the possible exception of Mr Major. His father, also called Ken, was a coal miner who left the Derbyshire pits after the Second World War and became a watchmaker and jeweller, running his own small shop in Nottingham. Ken Jnr once described his background as 'fairly solidly working class', which is pretty accurate - as long as you accept that he meant the respectable, aspiring, upwardly mobile end of the working class.

He read law at Gonville and Caius in the early Sixties and became part of the group known as the Cambridge Mafia, a gang of fiercely ambitious Young Conservatives, including Norman Lamont, Leon Brittan, Michael Howard, Norman Fowler and John Gummer. They were, socially speaking, a cut above the provincial shopkeeper's son, and some observers claim that he was initially rather shy and gauche in their company. This did not, however, keep him from becoming President of the Union.

Mr Gummer was best man when Mr Clarke married Gillian, the daughter of a schoolteacher from Sidcup, soon after graduating. She is a quiet, retiring woman, lacking in small talk. They are an unlikely, but apparently devoted couple. A parliamentary colleague recalls rather wistfully running into them recently. 'It is not often you find an MP and his wife of almost 30 years' standing holding hands when they do not think they are on public display,' he said. The couple have a son, Kenneth Bruce, and a daughter, Sue, who went through a rebellious punk period, living in a squat and getting into squabbles in pubs. She is now a nurse.

Mr Clarke is occasionally baited because when he went up to university he joined both the Bow Group and the Campaign for Social Democracy. While a member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, he wrote to a journalist who had asked about the development of his political attitudes, admitting it was not until some way into his period at Cambridge that he became firmly attached to the Conservative Party.

The reason he gave for his final conversion was that he was very attracted by the individualistic, free market ideas of the Macmillan government and its readiness to contemplate admission to the European Community. He claimed to have viewed the Conservative Party as one that would modernise the country and make it a more properous and liberal society. In contrast, he had come to the conclusion that Labour was dominated by old-fashioned institutional interests, in particular the trade unions.

There are two things about this package. The first is that - within his agenda - Mr Clarke has been remarkably consistent. The worst his critics can find to say is that his bellicosity during the Eighties was somewhat contrived and exaggerated in order to win favour with Mrs Thatcher. The second point is that his views make him hard to classify.

On the one hand, he has a reputation as a bit of a wet as a result of his pro-European sentiments and his opposition to capital punishment, both of which brought him into favour with Edward Heath. Having entered Parliament as Member for Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire in 1970, he was made Parliamentary Private Secretary to Geoffrey Howe, then Solicitor General, who remains an admirer. As such, he was involved in two key issues, drafting the European enabling legislation for Mr Heath and working on the Industrial Relations Act - an unsuccessful attempt at union reform. By 1974 he had been made a whip.

On the other hand, his meritocratic approach and his refusal to be intimidated by vested interests earned him admirers in the Thatcher camp - although Mrs Thatcher had doubts about whether he was truly 'one of us'. In 1982, it took a determined fight by Mr Fowler, Mr Clarke's old university chum, then Secretary of State for Social Services, before the Prime Minister was persuaded to allow him to appoint Mr Clarke as his deputy, handling industrial disputes in the NHS.

Mrs Thatcher's doubts about the ideological purity of the brash young man delayed his entrance into the Cabinet until 1985, when he became Paymaster General and Minister for Employment, when he broke the back of the closed shop. He showed similar firmness subsequently when taking on the entrenched medical and educational establishments. Roughing them up did Mr Clarke little lasting harm. The political courage he demonstrated when facing down more popular groups - ambulance drivers and nurses, for example - was more reckless, but was admired by some of the harder Tory old lags. He was one of the early recipients of the annual award given by the Radical Society, of which Norman Tebbit was a founder member.

Even so, Mr Clarke was among the first Cabinet ministers to warn Mrs Thatcher after the initial leadership ballot in 1990 that she could not survive. He went on to support Douglas Hurd. His enemies say he acted disloyally towards Mrs Thatcher, and then with cynicism when he campaigned for the oldest replacement on offer - the argument being that he might reasonably have hoped to succeed Mr Hurd, who is 11 years his senior, whereas the chance of succeeding John Major, two years his junior, seemed remote. But times change.