8 Oct 2012

Ken Clarke: Boris should get ‘nose to the grindstone’

Exclusive: Boris Johnson must settle down and deliver if he wants to be prime minister – so says Ken Clarke, in conversation with Channel 4 News Political Editor Gary Gibbon.

In a wide-ranging interview the former chancellor was questioned on the eurozone, “plan B”, and the recent reshuffle.

Speaking about Boris Johnson, Mr Clarke said: “If I were giving advice I’d say to be named as the next prime minister is usually the kiss of death for any political career… so he’s got some time to contemplate.

“If he wants to be prime minister, he does have to settle down to demonstrate he can seriously deliver on some complicated subjects. At the moment, it’s terribly fashionable to see Boris as an aspirant prime minister to be – I’d have thought it’s disastrous for Boris unless he gets it under control.

“It isn’t going to go anywhere, and by next year it will have gone out of fashion. Nose to the grindstone, I would advise him.”

He also advised Boris to focus on the police commissioner aspect of his role as mayor of London.

Referendum caution

Talking about some of the headlines on Europe that have opened the conference, he said: “Referenda are a funny way of running a modern country, but I accept that that is a generational thing.

“No-one has committed themselves to a referendum… I’d be cautious on rushing into a commitment to a referendum.”

I never thought we’d see strong growth after two years, who on earth thought that was going to happen? Ken Clarke

Reminding the audience of the Conservative Party‘s history of tackling Europe as an issue, he said: “We got ourselves re-elected when we shut up about Europe.

“The coalition hasn’t got into any trouble on Europe. If we all stop attitudinalising and start going by instincts, we all proceed very well.”

He denied he was in a minority of one as a pro-European, but accepted he was in a minority. “Perhaps I’m more cavalier about being open about it, but it seems ridiculous to me to pretend that the views I’ve held for 40 years, are suddenly ones I don’t hold.”

Read the full transcript of Gary Gibbon in Conversation with Ken Clarke here. 

Spending constraint

Talking about plans to split the European budget, he said: “I get infuriated by EU commissioners who assume that constraint on public expenditure doesn’t apply to their budget. The EU budget is already quite big enough…I hope we do take an extremely tough line in negotiations.”

He said “The idea that Britain is going to join the euro is an illusion.” Asked if that meant the dream had died, he said: “The dream got bashed around a bit… if they’d stuck to the rules we (finance ministers) drew up, the euro would be one of the strongest parts of the world economy, not one of the weakest.

“We had strict rules on fiscal discipline which were ignored.”

No plan B

Talking about the period before the Conservative Party last lost power, he said: “We were unelectable in 1997. It had nothing to do with Mandelson’s genius, Campbell, new Labour, all that rubbish – three turkeys could have beaten us in 1997.”

Asked about the current economic situation and whether it called for a plan B, he said: “I never thought we’d see strong growth after two years, who on earth thought that was going to happen? I’ve always said three or four years”

On the most recent reshuffle, that saw him lose his position as justice secretary, Mr Clarke said: “I’ve been in endless reshuffles. This one had its moments but it was more straightforward than most… I had expected to be leaving.

“I thought veteran members of the cabinet would be asked to step down and make way for young ambitious men … but I find myself like an old political anorak, still in the cabinet, still enjoying it.”

Economic policy

Asked about how his role would interact with George Osborne‘s, he said: “I’m working out how I can contribute to economic policy… members more firmly behind go economic policy than me. Anyone that thinks I’m a plan B is completely up the creek.”

He admits he wondered, “Do they prefer me inside the tent looking outwards, as opposed to outside looking in?”, but concluded “The prime minster is a one nation prime minister, I thought it was a balanced reshuffle – it kept the one nation character of the government”.

Evaluating the success of the coalition government he said: “I thought going into coalition with the Lib Dems, I mean, you’ve only got to look at the Liberal assembly, and I thought this isn’t going to last five minutes, with these local screwball campaigners. And I mean, who ever joined the Liberal Democrats to be a party in government?

“But they have been remarkably well disciplined, they are good parliamentary colleagues. As collaborators in government to be fair, it works well – gets a bit scratchy sometimes, and we get annoyed when the Liberals go off leaking things… but it works quite well.”

On Nick Clegg, he said: “I have a private joke with Nick. I always say Nick is a one nation Conservative. I thought he was always going to become a Conservative MP, he denies that vehemently to be fair.

“I say you’re a one nation Conservative who got fed up because the party became too eurosceptic and went off and joined the Liberals. He retaliates by calling me the sixth liberal in the cabinet which I also vehemently deny.”