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Tory leader hopeful Kenneth Clarke MP
Kenneth Clarke MP

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST: This week another Conservative Party leadership contender launched his campaign, a great political heavyweight, of all the MPs in the Commons today, Kenneth Clarke is by far the most experienced in high office. He's already been Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary and Health Secretary. And now he wants to be Prime Minister via the leadership of the Conservative Party. He joins me now live from Nottingham. Ken, good morning.

KEN CLARKE: Good morning, David.

DAVID FROST: There seems to be two threads in the papers this morning and yesterday. There's Matthew Parris yesterday in the Times saying he is the man, he is the man who can win against Blair, the only man who can win against Blair. And then today, William Rees-Mogg as you have probably have read, is passionate about the fact that you are going to be impossibly divisive because of the Europe question and the fact that you'll be leading a group of MPs most of whom disagree with you on the subject. What do you say to both of those? You'd probably prefer the first, but nevertheless.

KEN CLARKE: I prefer the first. I actually think that what the Conservative Party should be asking itself is how is it going to win an election? That is the key issue. We've just been thrashed, twice, and we've really just suffered our worst election defeat ever, how best can we win? And obviously I think that Matthew puts forward a judgement that I'm more likely to appeal to all those Labour and Liberal voters who've deserted us since 1992. William, well he's a, he's a really a zealot euro-sceptic; the key to his piece is he attributes to me, two views which I don't have. He says that I'm a federalist, which I'm not, and I've explained in detail why I'm not. I believe in the nation state. And he says I would join the single currency at any cost, which is not what I've ever said. I don't think we can join it now, it does depend on if and when the conditions arise. And that is the basis for William's argument that the party will be dis-unified. And it's only dis-unified if people like William encourage the Conservative Party, to be so obsessively euro-sceptic as to espouse arguments like that.

DAVID FROST: And if you became leader, obviously the policy on Europe would change. Would you feel that you had to go through the same procedure of consultation of the members that William Hague went to in order to bring this policy in, or would you say that voting for you as a leader was a vote to change the policy?

KEN CLARKE: Well, I'm not going to invite the Conservative Party to go in for its favourite activity and have a ferocious debate with itself about Europe. So what I'm saying is that on the single currency we have an approach which gives everybody including the Shadow Cabinet the freedom to have their own views and have a free vote if it ever comes to a referendum, both sides, so long as we don't actually overdo it, as long as we actually, we don't concentrate on it too much. On Europe, generally, the policy always was that we were staying in the European Union, so what I'd say is, let us have a policy which cuts out some of the more extreme euro-phobia which was creeping in towards the end of the last Parliament, it cuts out some of the more extreme arguments and those concentrate on the union of nation states based on market economics and free trade, which the Conservatives have always espoused and concentrated on the enlargement of the Union, which I was ferociously in favour of, as William Hague ever was.

DAVID FROST: And what about the four wasted years? How should they have been spent? Your four wasted years?

KEN CLARKE: They should have been spent in developing more policy on the great public services. There's a tendency for politicians after elections to say, you know, the public got it wrong. And let's just carry on as before and perhaps next time they'll listen to us and they'll get it right. The public weren't wrong. The public said the big number one issue in Britain at the moment is the crisis in the health service, crisis in our education service, the crumbling state of our transport infrastructure that you've just been talking about. And we have not during those four years developed enough policy. We didn't even mention them, so far as the public were aware very much during the election campaign and we went on and on about save the pound. The key thing about the pound and which Williams wants to take us back to is that the single currency will never be a general election issue. Never will be. Either when we get to the next election we'll already have had a referendum and it will have been settled definitely one way or the other, or it will be waiting for a referendum again. So the Conservative Party during this four years campaigned over and over again on save the pound, which didn't turn a vote. Indeed maybe it made us look a bit obsessed and it lost us a lot of votes. Instead of which we should have been talking of serious plans for getting the health service up to standard, getting education quality up to the level it requires, tackling the transport problems and persuading people that the Conservative Party has something better to say on those things.

DAVID FROST: And you've said that you will invite all your rivals to join your Shadow Cabinet if you win.

KEN CLARKE: Well there are only 160 or odd of us. I think it was silly in the last parliament to say that only hard-line euro-sceptics could be admitted to the Cabinet, Shadow Cabinet. I actually don't think any of my rivals have made a proper offer yet, they say they will have a few pro-Europeans in their Shadow Cabinet but they'll have to shut up and pretend they agree very hard-line euro-sceptic policies. So that's rather unattractive, I think. I'm saying that my Shadow Cabinet will have a majority of euro-sceptics in it. Because I've got to reflect the balance of the party. I mean it will all be a little more relaxed on the subject. There will be freedom of speech on the single currency and we'll cut out some of the more extreme and hard-line and other zealot arguments, which I think give a rather euro-sceptic British public the idea that they may be euro-sceptic but they're not as extreme as the Conservatives appeared to be on the issue at the last election.

DAVID FROST: Matthew Parris said in his piece that they ought, the Tories ought to have picked you last time in 1997, they were wrong then, and so on. If you had become leader in 1997, could you have won this recent election?

KEN CLARKE: Oh, who knows. It's terribly easy of me to say so, and you're tempting me to say, oh, yes. It probably would have had a complete nightmare. My usual response during the last Parliament was it was probably the luckiest that had ever happened to me that I didn't get it. I actually think the party ought to have done a lot better at the last election, that's why the last election was so much worse that 1997. In 1997 we were fighting a man, Tony Blair, who the public at that time thought was a kind of god-like figure who was going to walk on water, and have a third way, everything was going to get better once you had Tony Blair. In 2001, we were fighting a Blair whose image was tarnished, whose government had been unsuccessful. They weren't very popular and they really didn't themselves have a great deal to say on the crisis in the public services except, let's give us all, give us a second chance. That shows how little progress we have made and I'm sorry to upset my colleagues by saying we wasted four years in Opposition, but if you get so badly defeated as a party you do have to face up to some painful facts and you do have to change. And I think, the candidates in this leadership election, in our different ways, Michael from the right, me from the left, Michael Portillo is advocating some change, I am advocating some change, and I know it's very soon after a bad election defeat, the fact is the Labour Party discovered in 1983, after Michael Foot led them to catastrophe, you do have to change, if you're going to have the prospect of getting back into power.

DAVID FROST: If you had to crystalise, because obviously there's a number of issues on which you agree with Tony Blair, if you had to crystalise your major difference with Tony Blair, what would it be?

KEN CLARKE: Oh, me, interventionism of his government, the minister you just interviewed is following another minister, who for four years has meddled and fiddled, and interfered with the transport system without achieving any improvements in it all. Similarly in the health service. It's buried under central directives and initiatives and targets. And the other thing I object to which is going to be rather emphasised by the press, excessively I think, is I do object to the political correctness of the present government. Far too many New Labour MPs were elected in order to ban other people's lifestyles or chosen interests and I do object to that.

DAVID FROST: So in terms of approaching this leadership, what way will you run the party differently? You've had this problem obviously that you, a bulk of your MPs will be euro-sceptic if you get the leadership. How will you run the party differently?

KEN CLARKE: I will change the focus of its attention. I will say the thing we have to concentrate on is domestic policy. Economic policy, no difference at all between me and Michael Portillo, where I do think Gordon Brown has been overrated and we'll soon get to see that his legacy to himself, in his second term is not very good. The economy hasn't been performing as well during his term as it did during mine. And then the great public services which I've already talked about, where we must focus on that big issue. Because, at the moment we live in a very pleasant country, in Britain. In the United Kingdom we probably have a better quality of life than most people in the western world, but if I had to explain to a foreigner what was the problem living here, I'd tell them the problem is that we live with public services which are inferior to those of most other western states. Get the party to concentrate on that, get it to talk less often about Europe and get it to be sensibly sceptical about Europe. A lot of things I want to change in Europe. I don't admire the bureaucracy of Brussels. I'm not a euro-fanatic as I am claimed. But for heaven's sake, stop going to the other extreme and making it look as though we think the tea tastes wrong the moment you get to Calais and we hate everything that comes out of continental Europe because apart from anything else, several of them are richer and more successful countries than we are.

DAVID FROST: Are you confident?

KEN CLARKE: Yes, I'm confident. The difficulty is getting out of the House of Commons. The problem may be that, a lot of problems in the Conservative Party, frankly, have come from the parliamentary party in the last ten years. The problem for me is going to be coming second in the Commons so I get into that run-off in the membership at large. Now there's a danger that the parliamentary party will present the membership with two right-wing candidates, as a choice. I think that's wrong. I want to go out to the broader membership, I want to debate the issues properly with them and I do think that with the membership at large I have an excellent chance of winning.

DAVID FROST: Ken, thank you very much for joining us.

KEN CLARKE: Pleasure.


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