Former UK chancellor condemns ‘idiotic’ Brexiteer lines on EU talks

By on 22/11/2016 | Updated on 22/11/2016
Ken Clarke was a Conservative party minister 1979-1997 and 2010-2014

Veteran Tory Ken Clarke last week criticised Britain’s ‘doolally debate’ on Brexit – and argued that politicians’ focus on media headlines has undermined good policymaking, leaving the door open to ‘noisy, loud-mouthed populists’. Matt Ross reports

Former UK chancellor Ken Clarke called last week for more realism about the concessions that the UK may be able to win in the forthcoming Brexit talks, attacking “this slightly lunatic period we’ve had of a completely doolally debate.”

“There’s been an earnest debate going on about what particular things we’re going to order the Europeans to arrange for us,” he said, arguing that many Brexiteers have little understanding of how the EU operates. “Somebody is going to have to get them to sit down and understand what the Single Market is.”

Clarke was a Tory minister 1979-1997 and 2010-2014, including four years as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and has long argued for the UK to take a leading role in the EU. Speaking last Tuesday at an event organised by the Strand Group ­– an arm of the Policy Institute at King’s College London – he poured scorn on the idea that the EU might grant the UK full access to the Single Market whilst exempting it from key requirements such as free movement of labour and compliance with European Court of Justice rulings.

The idea that “each of the 28 governments is free to take as much notice as it wants of any of the rules, and break any one it wants to, and give into their own lobbies whenever they feel like it, and you can still call it a Single Market is quite the most idiotic suggestion I’ve ever heard in my life. It wouldn’t last five minutes,” he said. “It’s not a Single Market if the British have their own rules and you’re not going to have a way to sort out disputes through the European court. Let’s get onto some common sense things that we want.”

Brexiteers have repeatedly argued that following the UK’s exit from the EU, “trade wouldn’t be affected: that the Germans had to sell us their cars and the French their wine, and everything would carry on as before,” Clarke commented. “But it sure as hell won’t if we leave the Customs Union.”

The leaders of the Brexit campaign didn’t expect to win the referendum, he said, and had little idea how to proceed following their victory. Boris Johnson, a key Brexit campaigner and now foreign secretary, “was as shocked as David Cameron to find he was on the winning side, and the reason we’re taking so long [to form a UK position] is that nobody had given the slightest thought as to exactly what they were going to do if they won.”

Following Theresa May’s appointment as prime minister, Clarke said, “they made some rather too prompt announcements on what appeared to be peripheral policies at the [Conservative] party conference, and found that by accident they’d announced that we were leaving the Single Market.” At that conference, May told delegates that “we are not leaving only to return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice” – a position seen as incompatible with membership of the Single Market.

Clarke made clear that he’d like to see the UK remain within both the Single Market and the Customs Union “if we possibly can”, and suggested that EU members might be willing to tighten up rules on migration across the Continent – creating the political space for Britain to remain within the Single Market whilst restraining net migration from the EU. “All the other governments are under pressure to do something about migration,” he said. “You might be able to tighten up the European rules [on migration], because a lot of other governments want to be able to demonstrate that they’re tightening them up.”

Clarke also gave a stark warning that “noisy, loud-mouthed populists are having a tremendous burst of success, and at the moment they’re almost bursting through to take control in several countries.” Centrist politicians have been unable to challenge the rise of these “strident people with simple solutions”, he argued. “We have not produced serious democratic politicians who’ve discovered how to lead this and turn it into serious politics against all these pressures.”

In Clarke’s view, this failure of mainstream politics is linked to changes in how the government and media operate. “The end of collective Cabinet government is one of the reasons why we’re having democracies that don’t function properly in the western world now,” he said.

Tony Blair’s 1997 New Labour government, Clarke argued, was “convinced that their failure to handle the media in 1992 was the only reason they hadn’t won.” As a result they imported Bill Clinton’s media-focused campaigning style: “Public relations men focusing on message discipline, repeating slogans, aggressive media management, spinning the media – and certainly not collective [Cabinet] discussion, because it leaks. That was taken up immediately by David Cameron [on his election in 2010], who was as impressed by all this fashionable nonsense as Blair had been.”

The problem with this approach, in Clarke’s view, is that the media has little interest in what makes effective policy – and following the media agenda in pursuit of immediate praise leaves no room to pursue unpopular policies that might produce much better results for citizens. “The fate of governments is not determined by how good tomorrow’s headlines are,” he said. “What you get judged by is whether things seem to be working. People won’t remember what your policies are – but do you look like a competent lot and do they, however grudgingly, have to admit that things are getting a bit better than they were? That’s how Margaret [Thatcher] used to win elections. All our policies were hated by the public.”

“The media are the power here, with Parliament spending too much time chasing the media and trying to catch up,” he added.

With government controlled by the PM and media spinners, Clarke argued, Cabinet ministers are sent out by Number 10 to deliver agreed, media-friendly “lines” – rather than bringing forward their own policies, which can be debated and improved in Cabinet committees before returning to their departments for delivery.

“I used to find that when you had to clear your policies through your colleagues at a proper Cabinet committee, then at Cabinet, that was probably the place where policies were most improved,” he said. “If you’ve got decent colleagues and they’re a bit worried about the proposal, you can be made to improve what you’ve proposed by being challenged properly.”

Clarke himself ran his private offices “like a debating society”, he added – inviting officials to test and challenge ideas in pursuit of more robust and workable policies.

Successive governments’ concentration on pleasing the media rather than delivering effective policies, Clarke believes, has rebounded on the mainstream parties. “It hasn’t done either the Labour or Conservative governments any good going into this kind of politics,” he said. “They’re both much weaker than they used to be”.

Clarke did express optimism that Theresa May might be less awed by the media than either Blair or Cameron. “I don’t think she’ll want a [media announcements] grid, and she won’t repeat the slogans, and she likes to get stuck into the detail and has quite strong views about what she wants to do,” he said. “I have hopes that this might be a benefit.”

He was, however, plainly disappointed that the Conservative party is now so dominated by Eurosceptics. Asked why the party has shifted so far from its more consensual post-war stance, he said that “it had a lot to do with the trauma of the fall of Mrs Thatcher: the bitterness of that fall, and the desire for revenge.”

Following Thatcher’s ousting in 1990, he said, “the group of friends who gathered around Margaret… persuaded her that it had all been a European plot, that these Europhiles had betrayed her. It was fantasy and rubbish.”

Despite his disappointments, though, Clarke has retained his jovial manner – and his readiness to defend unpopular policies – throughout a political career that stretches back to his election as an MP in 1970. Asked the secret of political longevity, he named two factors that may be hard for others to replicate. “Luck, and my laid-back temperament,” he replied. “I’m absolutely horizontal.”

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See also:

John Kingman, champion of HM Treasury’s supply-side activism, warns of Brexit threat

UK needs ‘30,000 extra civil servants’ for Brexit, says leaked memo

Interim Brexit deal with EU ‘inevitable’ for UK, says former Foreign Office chief


About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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