Pasted below is the transcript of a Newsnight interview (due to be aired tonight but leaked to ConservativeHome) with former Home Secretary Charles Clarke.
The interview reveals how Mr Clarke feels that Tony Blair reneged on a promise to give him enough time to complete a programme of Home Office reforms.
It also shows a strong disagreement between Mr Clarke and his successor John Reid on the state of the Home Office and how law and order issues should be handled…
"The Ministerial car has been taken away. One of Westminster’s big beasts roams the political wilderness, angry and frustrated. Charles Clarke feels he has been cheated. Unfairly forced out of office and unjustly criticised. Now, he has decided to speak out.
There was a mark on my reputation left by the form of my departure and I wanted to put that straight from my point of view on the record.
Mr Clarke insists this is not about settling scores. The former Home Secretary has waited patiently for the moment to put his side of the story. But revenge, they say, is a dish best served cold.
Are you proud of what you achieved at the Home Office?
C.C. Very much so. I have some regrets about what I did or didn’t do in those circumstances but it was a sad thing, and I regret it very much, but at heart, the key issue for me as Home Secretary, as I discussed with the Prime Minister when I was appointed in 2005, was to really carry through the massive reforms which are necessary, and I think I set out on that path with some success.
Mr Clarke clearly believes that he had an agreement with Tony Blair – an undertaking that he would sheltered from the inevitable political squalls and given some years to achieve the reforms they both felt were necessary at the Home Office.
When we met and he asked me to continue in that office after the 2005 general election, I said to him, and he agreed, that it would take, in my opinion, certainly 2 or 3, possibly 4 years to make the changes which were necessary.
But less than 12 months after that conversation, the strength of the agreement was to be tested.
Hon. Members: You’re on your own!
It wasn’t just a squall – it was full blown political hurricane and at the centre Charles Clarke desperately trying to cling on to his job. On the night of the local elections, the Home Secretary was summoned to meet the Prime Minister in Downing Street.
He said he didn’t want me to continue as Home Secretary, so I said well I’m not ready to take another job. He did offer me other jobs, I’m not going to go into the detail but he did, and I felt I shouldn’t accept them because I had pledged myself to myself first of all, but also to the Parliament and to the country that I would resolve this problem. But also, Mark, because I felt frankly that the reform agenda on which I was engaged was a long and profound agenda and I wanted the opportunity to carry that through.
INT Looking at your political career, at all your efforts, and indeed what you felt had been an undertaking from the Prime Minister to give you the time to make those reforms work, there must have been a deep frustration the way things have turned out.
I was very frustrated. I regarded…
INT Were you angry with him?
Angry is a funny word. I felt angry with the situation, I didn’t feel particularly angry with him as such, even though I thought he took a wrong decision. I was angry and frustrated, as you say, because I felt that this massive task.. an enormous task, a great privilege to be asked to be Home Secretary at the general election, needed to be carried through over, as I say, a 3-4 year period, and I believed I could do that, I believe I should do that and I wanted the chance and opportunity to do that. And so yes I was angry and frustrated when that chance was removed.
To many, it seemed obvious that the Home Secretary had to go. The Prime Minister was bowing to the inevitable. But to Charles Clarke, it felt that short-term political imperatives were over-riding the need to implement long-term reform.
If you’re going to reform the Home Office over a three or four year period, there are going to be a large number of issues which are controversial and difficult … But we have to carry through that reform programme. If we simply say there’s a media campaign, we just cave into it whenever it comes along, that’s a very, very bad state of affairs for our democracy.
Are you saying that the Prime Minister caved in to a media campaign?
No, I don’t think that was it. What I think he did was look at the issues in the round, the local government elections and the general pressure there was and come to the view that he thought it would be difficult for me to continue carrying through my programme of reform.
But it was political expediency rather than long-term reform, wasn’t it.
That’s a criticism I would make. I think there is some truth in that.
When you left the Home Office, when you cleared your desk, did you think you were leaving a department that was unfit for purpose?
No I didn’t. I thought that was absolutely not the case.
But within 48 hours of occupying Charles Clarke’s office, his successor John Reid had come to a different conclusion. In an extraordinary bit of Parliamentary theatre, Dr Reid told MPs the department he had inherited was a disaster zone.
“Our system is not fit for purpose. It is inadequate in terms of its scope; it is inadequate in terms of its information technology, leadership, management, systems and processes.”
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.
Er…. Let’s… I think John was wrong to say that.
Do you feel hurt about the way John Reid described the Department personally/
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.
In fact, Charles Clarke believes he deserves credit for much of the painful groundwork to turn the Home Office around. Three senior civil servants – the Permanent Secretary and the heads of immigration and offender management were moved on, he points out. Just as he was starting to make real headway, he was forced out too.
It is a department which had a fresh official leadership, a new Permanent Secretary, new senior officials, which had a very clear reform strategy in place in each of its key areas. It was a department which had its problems. But I think the a department whose problems were being addressed, and could easily have been solved over the kind of couple of year timeframe that I described.
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.
Charles Clarke may have tried to head John Reid off before he reached the committee room, but the new Home Secretary had made up his mind what he wanted to say – the crisis wasn’t the fault of staff, it was down to the people at the top.
“I am not sure I would blame the people in the Home Office for this; this is about leadership and a willingness to carry out a profound and wholesale transformation of the Home Office.”
The criticism is that you were unwilling to carry out that wholesale transformation.
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. … I think most people would say, and I certainly feel myself, that I was a reforming Home Secretary committed to making the reforms that were necessary.
Dr Reid’s analysis was that the Department couldn’t see the wood for the trees – suffocated by complexity and woolly thinking.
“I am very clear. My view on immigration at this early stage is uncluttered by sophisticated structural thinking and that is: illegal immigrants should not be coming here; if they get here we should find them; and when we find them we should deport them.”.
Dr Reid railed at the clutter of sophisticated structural thinking, but his predecessor argues that the analysis is too simplistic.
I don’t think that’s a correct belief, this idea of some kind of woolly lack of substance in the immigration nationality directorate. These are some of most hard-headed people you can imagine. They’re dealing with very difficult cases. I understand that complexity, but just to confuse that with woolly liberalism or with a lack of determination to carry through what’s necessary in my opinion is wrong.
Q: In terms of style it would appear that there is a big difference between the way that you conducted yourself as Home Secretary and the way that Doctor Reid conducts himself.
I used to describe myself as tough but populist…. I beg your pardon, tough but not populist. Each Home Secretary has to decide their own style.
Do you think that John Reid is perhaps tough and populist?
I don’t know. You’d have to put that question to him.
Dr Reid’s direct style was evident when a media storm blew up over the sentence handed down to a paedophile. The new Home Secretary let it be known that he had asked the Attorney General to review the judge’s sentence because he was “concerned that the tariff … does not reflect the seriousness of the crime’
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?
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.
So he was wrong to intervene at that stage?
I’m not going to make it a specific criticism, I don’t know to what extent he looked at the case in detail and how he carried it forward, and it’s certainly perfectly appropriate for a Home Secretary to comment on the overall sentencing position or an overall police policy of those areas, and I believe…
But you wouldn’t have done it on a specific case?
I wouldn’t comment on a specific case but I just think you have to be careful in making the point you’re trying to make here Mark, because I’m not clear myself what John actually said on this particular case.
Having ruffled the feathers of the judiciary, the 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.
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.
There’s always a pressure, isn’t there, from the media, the media will always be on the Home Secretary’s back.
Always they will be and that’s right, and I think it’s important to resist that pressure a lot of the time, but I don’t want it to be confusing here. Some, maybe most, of the media criticism is justified and fair.
I think they often are speaking to people’s genuine concerns, but I agree with the implication of your question, that the Home Secretary of the day should not simply be running on the band wagon of some particular media campaign
Knee-jerk response to the tabloids, Charles Clarke warns, risks undermining public confidence in the system.
It’s very important that the Home Secretary does his very best to give the confidence to the country that the Criminal Justice System is working properly and effectively and well. I very much hope that John and the way that he does it will stand up for ah… creating a system in which people can have confidence right across the range rather than simply responding to a campaign.
It’s not just a matter of style, though. Charles Clarke fears that some of the key reforms he had already put in place inside the Home Office will be abandoned. Last week, John Reid announced that his predecessor’s carefully negotiated plans to restructure the police in England were being put on hold.
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. I understand the need for time, there’s always a need for time. He has, however, been very, very clear that he agrees with the policy I set out on the basis of the advice from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary
He may agree but he’s kicked it into the long grass, hasn’t he?
I don’t know how far the long grass is. Of course I think it’s wrong to delay it. I think we’ve got a timetable which was the right thing to do and I don’t agree with his decision in that area.
Charles Clarke is a serious politician unused to finding himself sidelined from the centre of politics. Even more galling is the suggestion that he was a hopeless Home Secretary whose failures require his successor to put together a “rescue package” for the department.
I’m not going to take responsibility for all the crises after I left. Some of them are as a result of decisions, as we’ve discussed in this interview, made by the current Home Secretary. I do believe that there are major issues which need to be resolved in certain areas and John is going about that, I’m sure, very well. But I also believe that the foundations are very much in place.
You’ve made your criticism of John Reid clear in what you’ve just said, at a time when the government is trying very hard to convince the public that things are now back under control. I mean what you’ve said today is not going to please Downing Street, is it.
I don’t know. What I decided to do, Mark, after I’d been moved from the government was to reflect on the position. I then decided to give a couple of interviews of which this is one, dealing with the history, and then simply put that to bed. You wont find me after the World Cup is finished, talking about Home Office matters again. I won’t be discussing those things.
Charles Clarke is using enforced exile to reflect on his government’s overall performance. He worries that Tony Blair may be running out of ideas on how to continue the New Labour project.
We’re not any of us clear enough about how take that forward in the way that we need to, how we deal with some of these major reforms which still need to be carried through, and that’s where I hope to make a contribution in the future.
Can you come back from this politically?
I don’t know what you mean by “come back”. Certainly…
Well, do you want a front line job?
Not specifically. What I want is to contribute to making the process of change in the country and the party which has been what I’ve been involved in for the last 25 years. I believe that…
Would it matter to you if you never had a seat at the cabinet table again? You feel that might have gone now.
It may well have done and no it wouldn’t matter to me. I mean what matters to me is to have a government, a Labour government which makes change and carries things through in the interest of the country. It is not a condition of my life that I should serve in a government again in any form.”
Not a condition of his life, but Charles Clarke still harbours political ambition. His carefully planned strategy, of which this interview is a part, is to rehabilitate Charles Clarke.