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Tuesday, June 27, 2006 

When politicians attack: Clarke bites the hand that feeds.

There's a strange thing that happens when ministers resign or are fired from the government. They suddenly become human again. Instead of walking around bleating out slogans and the government line like daleks, they often turn into someone you might even not mind spending some time with. Watching the Daily Politics or Question Time, they often turn up and whether you agree with their politics or not, they seem amiable enough. If only the ministers themselves were like that.

Which brings us to Charles Clarke. Here was a man who entered the Home Office after the years of judge-baiting by David Blunkett, himself brought down by the tabloids who he had got into bed with. For a while he seemed like he was going to be different. After 7/7, he promised that he would keep in contact with his shadow home secretaries so that they could reach a consensus on any new laws following the attacks. This was thrown out of the window by Blair himself while Clarke was on holiday, with his "the rules of the game are changing" speech, itself a reaction to a campaign by the Sun which seemed to think that the whole country was going to collapse because the politicians were away on holiday. Throughout the battle over the 90 days detention issue, Clarke repeatedly held out on a olive branch to the opposition parties who opposed his plans, only for Blair to again bring him to heel. As a result, the government suffered its first loss. Clarke and the police rather than Blair got the blame.

It was the start of the slide. This year Clarke went from bad move to bad move, first being incredibly rude to Rachel North's father when he tried to speak to him, then making a speech attacking the Guardian and Independent for daring to suggest that the government was diluting ancient liberties and become more and more authoritarian. Within days the foreign prisoner scandal had broken, and while Clarke seemed to weather the storm and face the criticism, the Labour local election results were so bad that Blair sacked him. Embittered, Clarke refused any job other than foreign secretary, which wasn't offered. He went to the backbenches.

And from there he seems to have been quietly seething. Two months on, and he's emerged to give his first major interviews, as well as making a speech defending his stewardship of the Home Office. On Newsnight he seemed neither anxious to precipitate a "Geoffrey Howe" moment, the speech by Thatcher's ex-foreign secretary which brought about her downfall, but neither was he particularly praiseworthy. Rather, he seemed demoralisingly angry about the job done since his removal by his successor, John Reid, who he launched a number of attacks on.

INT When you left the Home Office, when you cleared your desk, did you think you were leaving a department that was unfit for purpose?

CC No I didn’t. I thought that was absolutely not the case.

INT John Reid was absolutely clear, wasn’t he, that this was a department that was unfit for purpose, your leadership was incoherent and there was a failure to ensure accountability. He was talking about what you'd done.

CC Er…. Let’s… I think John was wrong to say that.

INT Do you feel hurt about the way John Reid described the Department personally?

CC No, I don’t feel that. I think he came in as every incoming Secretary of State is entitled to do and said it as he saw it. It’s just that I don’t agree with his analysis of what he saw ...

The overall picture of a department not fit for purpose in any of the respects he described I think is and was fundamentally wrong, and I think John was wrong to use those descriptions as I told him before he gave evidence to the select committee.

INT The criticism is that you were unwilling to carry out that wholesale transformation.

CC Well if that was his criticism, and by the way I’m not sure that’s what he meant by it, but let’s assume it was, it certainly is not true.

INT He upset some members of the judiciary when he questioned the sentence of a paedophile by a judge. Is that something that you would have done?

CC Decisions are taken by parts of the Criminal Justice System which the Home Secretary of the day is routinely asked to comment on and either criticise or support. I made it my practice not to do that.

INT Having ruffled the feathers of the judiciary, Dr Reid then found himself criticised by the police - this time for appearing to respond to a News of the World campaign by asking for a new assessment of the law the tabloid demanded. The paper wanted legislation allowing public information on where convicted paedophiles live.

CC I don’t know if his timing was influenced by the News of the World campaign or not. I haven’t spoken to him about it so I can’t tell you. If it was then I would criticise it. I don’t think that’s the right thing to do.

INT There’s always a pressure, isn’t there, from the media, the media will always be on the Home Secretary’s back.

CC ... the Home Secretary of the day should not simply be running on the band wagon of some particular media campaign...

INT Last week, John Reid announced that his predecessor’s carefully negotiated plans to restructure the police in England were being put on hold.

CC I regret that John has decided not to proceed with the orders before Parliament for four of the regions of the country forces that we propose.
In other words, Clarke seems to disagree with almost every major policy undertaking or action that Reid has decided upon since he has become Home Secretary. What's remarkable about the attack is that Clarke and Reid are, or were, ardent Blairites, dedicated to the cause of furthering New Labour. When Blair was thinking of throwing in the towel in 2004, it was the likes of Tessa Jowell, Hazel Blears, Reid and Clarke that persuaded him to stay on. For there to be such a major disagreement with the main running of the Home Office since Clarke's sacking is the first sign that the consensus between the Blairites themselves is beginning to break down. Of course, this might simply be Clarke trying to get some sympathy and recognition of the difficult job that he had. The Sun, which loves Reid's immediate capitulation to any campaign which they or their sister paper decides to run, has today described his attack as "sour". No doubt that reflects the mood in Downing Street, which has simply said that Clarke was "expressing his disappointment".

Yet inside they must be cringing. While Clarke was much less harsh on Blair, who he still believes should serve until 2008, he didn't put his complete faith in him either.

Today if we look at the Labour Party generally there is a sense of uncertainty about the direction we are going to follow and we have to recover that. My preferred option has been and remains that Tony Blair stays as leader and Prime Minister to complete the execution of the manifesto upon which he was elected in 2005 and then hands over to a new leader who would prepare the manifesto for 2009-10. That is the logic of his statement before the last election.

“The logic of him carrying through the manifesto would point to 2008, as I have always said. I do think there is a sense of Tony having lost his sense of purpose and direction, so my advice to him is to recover that sense of purpose and direction and that remains the best option. I intend between now and the party conference to say things about the future of the party, which would be about what I think that sense of purpose and direction should be.
The horrible thing that must be worrying Blair's sycophants and acolytes is that Clarke is entirely right. Is there a more despicable sight than Blair, after almost 9 years in office, finally deciding that there should be a "open debate about where we go next"? Even then the open debate is false. Blair makes clear which way he believes that the party should go - and there's no chance that he'll let anyone alter that, or that when Gordon Brown takes over that he'll change direction. Blair lost his sense of direction when he decided to join the United States in a war which was unnecessary, illegal and which we had no need to participate in. His purpose went even earlier than that, when he dedicated the Labour party to further privatisation and the establishment of the mantra of "choice", which has become a hideous distraction which no one other than the Labour party and private companies profiting out of it are interested in. In riding the Murdoch and Rothermere tiger, he's removed central liberties, became even tougher on crime, only for the fear of it to continue rising with prisons full, and he still thinks he hasn't gone far enough. Only an extension of summary powers will sort out the mess of our streets, with all the ugly connotations that carries with it.

The solution should be obvious to everyone, but hardly anyone in the Labour party wants to face up to it. No one can stand the main Blairites any longer. Most people when they hear the voice of Jowell, Hewitt, Reid or Blears reach for the sick bag. The public at large seem to have little more respect for Brown, especially as he seems determined to make himself a laughing stock with his attempts at appearing "with it", by watching the football and listening to the Arctic Monkeys, as Jackie Ashley wrote yesterday. All it does is make him look like he's going through a mid-life crisis. Brown needs time for him to establish himself as the next leader, if he does one day finally become prime minister. Yet before that there needs to be a debate, if not a contest over where Labour is going. The Blairites and their message has failed. They have to go, and very quickly if Labour is not to find itself out of power. Brown has to heed that message and come up with some decent alternative policies if he is not going to just be the PM until Cameron restores the Conservatives as the "natural party of government". It's often forgotten, but Labour under Brown would still be better than the Tories, especially when Cameron is dedicated to the same quick fix solutions that Blair has been, with his wheeze about a Bill of Rights designed purely to win support from the Sun. At the moment many seem to assume we're either heading for a Tory government or a hung parliament. Brown can still change that.

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I for one feel clarke has lost some of his moral highground by having this bitching session on newsnight. You're article is far more indepth than mine, but I have added my two penneth and would appreciate any comments. Thanx.

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