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banner Saturday, 30 September, 2000, 14:23 GMT 15:23 UK
Clarke: The lucky loser

By BBC News Online's Nyta Mann

"I think one of the luckiest things that happened to me was not to win the leadership of the Conservative Party, in some ways," says Ken Clarke.

"To lead a party in opposition which is so unpopular when you start is very difficult."

What we're saying is that bit more sensible than what we were saying last year

Ken Clarke on the Tory Party
And towards the end of last year things had got so bad they could only get better for William Hague's party.

Lord Archer, now waiting to hear if he is to be charged with perjury or conspiring to pervert the course of justice, had just been forced to stand down as Conservative candidate for London mayor.

Shadow minister Shaun Woodward defected to Labour. Vice-chairman Michael Ashcroft, the Tories' biggest bankroller, was engaged in battle with the press over his business activities in Belize.

'Less accident-prone'

More past sleaze resurfaced when disgraced former minister Neil Hamilton lost his libel case against Harrods owner Mohammed al Fayed.

It was in this context that Clarke warned his party it had still not begun to rebuild itself as a "credible party of opposition" and was instead reeling from "unexpected accidents".

The Tories can begin this year's party conference, probably the last before the election, congratulating themselves on having become less accident-prone.

"I think in opposition you have to wait for events to do their work for you," says Clarke. "You have to wait for opportunities so that people will start to listen to you.

"And you have to do the work of preparing policies that will then win you some credibility.

"I think overall that's what the party has done - but it needs to work at it."

When we talk about immigration and asylum polices we should be extremely careful about our language

Ken Clarke
The former chancellor believes things are much improved, then. The consensus on Believing in Britain, the Tories' pre-manifesto document, is that it is a more serious attempt at a programme for government than previous policy.

Over the summer William Hague enjoyed considerable success in setting the agenda ahead of Labour. The polls have been looking much healthier for the opposition.

But there is still some way to go.

"I think the party does have to spell out clear messages on the big domestic subjects still. But they're starting to do so," says Clarke.

"It is doing the work and it is moving on. Last year's conference tried the Common Sense Revolution. This year's is trying this pre-manifesto document."

This week's Bournemouth gathering "has to look like a conference which is debating serious policies and has something to say on the things that still determine elections".

Resist anti-euro temptation

That also means resisting harping on about Europe, tempting though it must be to Hague: "The only policy the Conservatives are clearly identified with is being anti-European - on which they're rather too extreme for quite a lot of the mainstream public.

"They now need to show that they're a broader party and that we do have a range of policies on things that are regarded as more important by the general public and impact on their daily lives."

I think Michael comes across as a wholly credible shadow chancellor

Ken Clarke on Michael Portillo
But overall, "people can now see that what we're saying is that bit more sensible than what we were saying last year, which is a plus for an opposition party".

As a big figure on the distinctly moderate wing of his party, a member of the Conservative Mainstream and Tory Reform groups, Clarke must have been at least uncomfortable with his party's populist rhetoric on issues like asylum seekers.

The competitive crossfire between the government and opposition became so heated that the Liberal Democrats sought to refer their language to the Commission for Racial Equality.

"I am generally on social policy a liberal with a small l, so I do think when we talk about immigration and asylum polices we should be extremely careful about the language we use," Clarke says.

"I try to use the language which appeals to moderate opinion that takes a common sense view of the subject. There's always a danger with asylum that you'll start getting support from people whose views you deplore."

But he puts most of the blame for the inflammatory nature of the debate on the way it was covered by newspapers.

Portillo effect

Clarke has nothing but praise for shadow chancellor Michael Portillo, who returned to frontline politics a year ago.

"I think the contribution that he's made to economic policy since he's come in has been very beneficial and very sensible," says the Tories' pre-eminent pro-European of one of its most prominent antis.

Portillo it was who presided over several swift but politically necessary U-turns in policy - on the minimum wage, independence of the Bank of England and the Tories' ill-fated and much trumpeted "tax guarantee" - which were executed as smoothly as possible.

"It may upset a few of our more extreme people who are not terribly economically literate, but I think Michael comes across as a wholly credible shadow chancellor," says Clarke.

"I think he has helped to flesh out the policy he inherited and where he's modified it he's made it generally more sensible."

Euro campaign 'inept'

One area on which the two men differ, of course, is Europe.

I don't think New Labour could campaign its way out of a paper bag

Ken Clarke
Clarke is a key figure in the all-party pro-euro Britain in Europe campaign, for which he has faced heavy attack from his own party and rumoured deselection threats in his Rushcliffe constituency.

And many of its supporters feel the campaign is hampered by the government's risk-averse, focus group-sensitive approach to the issue.

It is an approach for which the former cabinet minister has only contempt.

"Britain in Europe can't campaign fully until the government has the courage of its convictions, determines a referendum and starts campaigning," he says.

"I personally think the government should have campaigned more vigorously, more consistently, more openly."

Tactical ineptitude, he believes, means that New Labour let the issue drift to the detriment of the pro-euro cause rather than answer the Eurosceptics.

And when it belatedly did decide to argue the pro-European case more positively, "it's typical of this government that they had a public row all about the tactics".

"All I can do, as someone who is with them in Britain in Europe, is wish they'd sort their act out."

Lacklustre campaign

But that's New Labour all over, according to Clarke. "I think the Labour Party is useless at political campaigning and I've always thought that," he declares.

"Frankly, anybody could have beaten the Conservative Party at the 1997 election. Labour fought a very lacklustre campaign and still won an enormous majority. Since that time the party's press relations have got worse and worse and worse.

"And Downing Street is surrounded by young acolytes who think they're political experts who have no feel for public opinion at all. I don't think New Labour could campaign its way out of a paper bag.

"Britain in Europe has suffered mildly from that because the Labour government which should be the most powerful component of the all-party coalition has, I think, been a slightly faltering one."

As for his own party, Clarke believes that with a prevailing wind - of which the fuel crisis was just the most recent evidence - things are looking up.

"I think politics is getting more interesting again," he says. "It reminds me above all else of my old hero Macmillan, when he was asked what determines the fate of a government.

"'Events, dear boy, events'."

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