KEN Clarke has gone awol. He left the last campaign stop at the same time as his chief of staff, who has long since arrived, but is nowhere to be seen. “He insists on driving himself,” one aide tells me, with an exasperated look. Eventually, forty-five minutes after we’re supposed to meet, he storms into the small Conservative constituency office on Watford’s high street. “It was the Sat Nav,” he bellows by way of apology. “It took me to a shopping parade – it just wasn’t this one.”
The shadow business secretary and former chancellor is here to campaign for Richard Harrington, the Tory candidate for Watford. The pair are old friends and Harrington, who made his millions in property development, worked on Clarke’s campaign to become Conservative leader in 2001.
A three-way marginal on the M1, Watford is home to “motorway man”, the swing voter that will decide the outcome of this election. It is an unremarkable town, dominated by a handful of tired shopping malls and a hotch potch of shops (the Polish café seems to be doing better than the luxury hi-fi store). A Yates’ Wine Lodge and Walkabout bar – de rigueur for a Friday night in the suburbs – provide the entertainment.
First on Clarke’s agenda is a visit to a local branch of Clydesdale Bank, but it’s been cancelled at the last minute, apparently by Conservative central office. It seems the high command don’t want Tories being seen near the big bad banks. “No banks, and no champagne,” grumbles Clarke.
He causes quite a stir on his stroll along the high street, but has a knack of canvassing the wrong voters. He approaches one man who is slouched on a bench, slightly worse for wear. “I hope you’ll be voting Conservative,” booms Clarke. “Oh, I don’t know about that,” the man replies. “Your lot are planning on taking away the sickness benefits.” It’s a fair bet that those found loitering in Watford on a weekday afternoon aren’t natural Tory supporters.
Clarke targets his next pitch at a pair of Russian tourists, who have inexplicably taken time out of their London holiday to visit Zone 8. They can’t vote, they tell him, but they “very like Watford”. “That’s nice,” replies Clarke. “I quite like Moscow.”
Another voter mistakes Clarke for Labour’s John Prescott – “I know you, you punched a farmer” – something that seems to happen to the 69-year old rather a lot. “You’ve ruined my day,” he moans. “I haven’t been mistaken for him for about six months. I’m the more attractive version, I’m with the Conservatives, and I’ve never punched anyone.”
The Tory big beast was plucked from the backbenches by David Cameron in January 2009 to shadow Lord Mandelson, brought out of exile in one of the Prime Minister’s rare moments of political genius. It’s a challenge Clarke is clearly relishing, but with several polls (including one in this newspaper) suggesting the City prefers him to George Osborne, there have been constant mutterings that he could end up becoming chancellor, a position he held in the Major government between 1993 and 1997.
He puts his popularity in the Square Mile down to “familiarity”, before going on to say he has a well-earned reputation for prudence. “I was reasonably successful when I was chancellor of the exchequer. Nobody ever claims to get everything right, but we recovered from recession and we were in very good shape when the Labour government took over.”
When Labour won a landslide victory in 1997, it stuck to Clarke’s tax and spend plans in a bid to prove the party was no longer financially profligate. “Then in the year 2000, they threw caution to the wind and went for spending, borrowing and taxing, so they went bust,” says Clarke.
He says he hasn’t been offered a firm job in a Cameron government yet, but that he’d be “very pleased” if he were invited to be “on the front bench for a bit”. Despite repeated questioning, he refuses to say whether he would accept the chancellorship if Cameron were to offer it, merely saying “if I get an offer, and I hope I will, I would expect to be offered business secretary”.
Thanks to Mandelson, who beefed the department up in line with his ambitions, Clarke will have one of the largest briefs in Whitehall if he does become business secretary. Responsible for more civil servants and government ministers than any other secretary of state, he will be in charge of trade, industry, universities, science and technology.
That’s if the Tories win the election, of course; with polls stubbornly pointing to a hung parliament, it’s far from a foregone conclusion. Clarke blames a “very strong anti-politics mood” for the party’s failure to emerge as clear victors. “That’s what has caused this election to take on a puzzling complexion. That’s why we’ve not managed to put in a commanding lead, which we would have done in these circumstances 20 years ago.” Nonetheless, he remains “reasonably confident” that the Tories can eek out a majority.
If they don’t, they’ll probably have to start horse-trading with the Liberal Democrats, a scenario that fills Clarke with “horror”. “They would be unable to agree among themselves who they might support. They have a laughable constitution in which a Liberal assembly would have to be held to approve any arrangement. I wouldn’t ask a Liberal assembly what day of the week it is, and I certainly wouldn’t give it a powerful position of leverage and control over the formation of the government in an economic crisis.”
As we return to Clarke’s car, parked in the local Sainsbury’s, a voter recognises him and runs over. “I know you. You’ve been going for years,” he declares. “Yes it’s been some time,” Clarke says to the man, who is no spring chicken himself. If the Tories win tomorrow, he won’t be bowing out any time soon.
CV | KENNETH CLARKE
Education: Nottingham High School and Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge
Career: Called to the Bar by Gray's Inn in 1963; becomes QC in 1980
Elected MP for Rushcliffe at the 1970 general election
Promoted to Paymaster General in 1985
Becomes Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1987
Promoted to Cabinet as Health Secretary (1988), then Education Secretary (1990); Home Secretary (1992); and Chancellor (1993).
Becomes Shadow Business Secretary in January 2009