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Last Updated: Sunday, 18 September 2005, 12:48 GMT 13:48 UK
Kenneth Clarke, MP
On Sunday 18 September 2005 Andrew Marr interviewed Kenneth Clarke, MP

Please note "BBC Sunday AM" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Kenneth Clarke, MP
Kenneth Clarke, MP

ANDREW MARR: Anyway, from a big beast of pop music to the biggest beast in Nottinghamshire - the man who wants to take on Downing Street, finally make it there, Ken Clarke.

Will this be his third attempt at the leadership, third time lucky? You've written, recently, Ken Clarke, that if the Tories don't get it right this time - by which I presume you mean choose yourself as their leader - they could be in the political wilderness for a generation.

That would more or less be the end of the Tory Party, wouldn't it, as we've known it, if that happened?

KENNETH CLARKE: Well I think I had in mind (OVERLAPS) - well I think if we had a fourth heavy political defeat in succession, then we'd be out for a very long time - I think that's what I had in mind - I wasn't quite so immodest as to say it was obviously and necessarily quite as you put it, that they had to elect me to avoid that. But I - we've had three really dreadful defeats and a fourth in succession would, I think, make us slightly irrelevant to the governing of this country for quite a long time - and particularly if it showed we were retreating into being a somewhat self-indulgent, rather old-fashioned right wing party of opposition - which we've been in danger of doing recently.

So, I think the next election needs to be taken seriously and the Tories should stop telling themselves, oh well let's take a longer view, let's do a bit better at the next election and let's look at the election after that. The Conservative Party's in quite a critical state - and the Liberal Democrats, as Charlie will be telling you in a few minutes - are breathing down are necks, they'll overtake us if we don't make ourselves the principal and obvious alternative government by the next election.

ANDREW MARR: You think that's a real threat, do you? A real possibility?

KENNETH CLARKE: The Liberals should have done better at this last election but you'll put that to Charlie - I mean it was their great opportunity and they didn't. But the Conservatives should not sort of lean back and say well that's all right then because we got nowhere near replacing the government when it was a very weak and vulnerable government.

And between now and the next election, not only put good distance between ourselves and the third party, but we've got to actually believe we are a serious alternative government that wants to be back in power and knows what we'd want to do when we got there.

And we weren't persuading anybody much of that at any of the last two elections and we, of course, were thrown out pretty heartily when we lost power in 1997.

ANDREW MARR: In terms of how your campaign is doing at the moment, you're doing very well in the opinion polling but you didn't get David Willets - that must have been a bit of a blow.

KENNETH CLARKE: Ah yes, it was a bit of a disappointment - I rate David very highly, I think his politics are much closer to mine that David Davis, and they always have been, so I'm not quite sure why he went over in the end, I think he was rather torn.

David Willets has been making speeches I rather agree with, although I don't make so many speeches about the nature of the Conservative Party and so on as my rivals seem to do. ... David was a disappointment but I, I've not broken with David Willets, if I win the leadership I have absolutely no doubt that David Willets will be quite an enthusiastic member of the Conservative opposition team. I rather think David Willets has voted for me in the past, so what on earth induced him to go across to David Davis this time, I'm not quite sure. ANDREW MARR: So he could be chancellor - he could be either your chancellor of David Davis' chancellor - just somebody's chancellor.

KENNETH CLARKE: No I - I never go round - I never go round offering anybody jobs. I don't campaign in that way. What I, what I - what I offer people is do you want to be in a Conservative Party led by me, first because it will have a better chance of winning, which we seem to have given up on in recent years; secondly because I think my sort of Conservative Party is probably like yours and is the sort that right and centre members of the public, who are rather despairing of New Labour, would like to see in place again.

ANDREW MARR: Let's look at some of the policies. Your critics say about that you were wrong on the euro, that you were wrong on independence for the Bank of England, and that a lot of your criticisms of New Labour in the early days weren't borne out. What do you say to those people - say Ken Clarke's a fantastic act, he's the best big beast, he's the last big beast we've got, but when it comes to the actual nitty-gritty of policy detail he's either out of date, or he's too centralist, or he was simply wrong?

KENNETH CLARKE: Well, I, firstly try not to argue the past. The trouble with the press, with great respect to your trade Andrew, is they do tend to report each other and they do go for clichés. So either they describe my lifestyle - fairly accurately but in a very knockabout version of my lifestyle - or they rewrite my career, and then they all start reporting each other. I will repeat that I was always in favour of an independent Bank of England - chase one of those reminiscences.

I believe, if I gave you a long history, that my political judgement has been right far more often than it's been wrong. I think my political record in government was very substantial and it's parodied now by my critics. So let's get up to date. The last big call that everybody in British politics had to make was about whether or not to join the invasion of Iraq. That had nothing to do with the days of Heath and Thatcher, that had nothing to do with what had gone before.

It was one of the biggest and most important calls made by any British government and looked at by British politicians since the war. I made my personal judgement - not for electoral reasons, not based on calculations on how it suited me - I thought my position would be quite unpopular. I based it on my conversations with neo-conservative Americans, based it on my judgement of what is Britain's national interest now. I would defend the judgement I made on Iraq very ferociously.

I followed it up with a major speech, which hardly anybody read, ten days ago about - not arguing about whether it was right to invade, that's been done, it was wrong but it's been done - but how do we tackle the major threat of terrorism now. Far more important than all this carrying on about parodying my health reforms or whatever many years ago. My health reforms were very, very successful ... Tony Blair's making such a mess of imitating them.

ANDREW MARR: I was - I was going to say I did read that speech, as attentively as you read the Maastricht Treaty but I - a cheap point to make.

KENNETH CLARKE: Well I - my knowledge of the Maastricht Treaty is probably better than yours Andrew.

ANDREW MARR: It may very well be.

KENNETH CLARKE: They - they - because the other cliché - the other cliché that has come in - and where has this come from the last two years, it's a new one - is that I have no eye for detail, or I don't immerse myself in policy. One reason I get on well with David Willets, is actually I'm a policy wonk, years ago I was a party spokesman on pension reform, you know and I - ever since that time I got immersed in detail.

ANDREW MARR: Let me - let me ask if I may about some policies. What's your general take on flat tax, or flatter tax - tax system generally?

KENNETH CLARKE: Well on flat tax, I, I, what I've said is I agree with George we should study it. I also, when questioned about it at the meeting I gave on economic policy, said what I want to know is who gains, who loses. If you're going to raise the same amount of money from income tax, who gains, who loses.

I said my suspicion was the poor would gain a bit, the very rich would gain a lot and ordinary people on ordinary incomes would find they were paying more tax. And I've already seen some people that have actually done some academic research which bears out that suspicion.

I'm hoping Angela Merkel wins the German election today - if she doesn't win the German election today with a clear enough majority it's because she's rather unthinkingly plunged into flat tax. I don't think she did but her professor from Heidelberg succeeded in making a complete mess of her election campaign by suddenly waving his flat tax ideas about. So I, I stayed on side by agreeing with George we should study it. Now a lot of the taxation, simplified taxation that's different, but flat tax is a neo-conservative American idea

ANDREW MARR: So you're basically

KENNETH CLARKE: (OVERLAPS) - I'm not very keen on ...

ANDREW MARR: - you're agin it.

KENNETH CLARKE: I'd need to be persuaded

ANDREW MARR: Need to be persuaded but not yet.

KENNETH CLARKE: There was a pool run by a multi-billionaire some years ago. Can you ask me about what?

ANDREW MARR: I want to ask you about one of the other contenders for the job of Conservative leader. Liam Fox has spoken today about cutting the abortion limit to 12 to 14 weeks - there's a slight tinge of American style politics coming into the campaign. What's your view about whether issues such as the family, but specifically abortion, should be central to British politics?

KENNETH CLARKE: I strongly disagree they should be central to party politics. I feel very strongly indeed that is a free vote issue, there should not be a Conservative Party policy on issues like abortion or moral and ethical judgments of that kind. My own view on abortion has been consistent - I think my own views and those of David Steele, largely the author of the present law on abortion, have been pretty identical over the years. In fact the last time the abortion law was altered, I was the minister in charge of the bill. It was the bill that set up the Human Embryology Authority and that had a lot of amendments tacked on ... to it and I think my votes all the way through that bill were in favour of the law as it now stands.

It needs looking at, it needs looking at in the light of medical advance. I don't agree with Liam Fox ... on abortion - I respect his views but I don't think either of us should be thinking of imposing a party whip on the issue or turning it into a party political issue. I do think if the Conservative Party, if the Conservative right brings in more of the sort of current republican right American politics into the politics of the Conservative Party they'll be making a serious mistake. It's, we have a quite different political and economic culture in this country to that of America and the George W Bush right does not naturally fit here and unfortunately it does have a certain amount of appeal to one or two of my parliamentary colleagues.

ANDREW MARR: Are you going to win this? Very briefly.

KENNETH CLARKE: I haven't the first idea, I mean I -

ANDREW MARR: All right.

KENNETH CLARKE: Well I think we'll all agree that one day the ... Conservative Party must hold more sensible leadership elections and get them over with quickly and hold them more sensibly. It's a - we - we just provide too much public entertainment whilst we drag it out - but this time I think my chances are better than they've been before. ANDREW MARR: We hope you carry on entertaining us. Ken Clarke, thank you very much indeed.



Andrew will be speaking to other Conservative Party leadership candidates in the weeks ahead.

On Sunday 02 October 2005, Andrew will speak to the Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis MP.

Mr Davies is expected to, formally, announce his candidacy in the near future.

NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy

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