By Matthew Barrett
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Ken Clarke has given his first post-reshuffle-demotion interview to the Daily Telegraph today. The former Justice Secretary appears his usual, ebullient self. After some speculation after the reshuffle about what his "roaming" role as Minister without Portfolio actually involves, he clarifies his role as being "able to advise, put my oar in and contribute to a whole lot of policymaking, particularly the economy, particularly trade, particularly national security". The interview focuses on three main topics.
After the good growth figures of this week, the Minister has a warning for anyone feeling too confident about the economy being back on track in time for an election victory in 2015:
"If we are back to strong growth by the next election, we probably won’t need to campaign. If at the next election, the economy is in strong normal growth, George Osborne will be given the Companion of Honour or something and we will all get safe back."
That is unrealistic, he says:
"It would be absolute folly to turn around and say it will all be fine by Christmas. Anybody who says we are absolutely certain we are bouncing back to strong growth is being very optimistic. … What I am confident we will be able to say at the next election is we were a strong hand on the tiller."
Mr Clarke also echoes the feeling that austerity will have to continue well into the next parliament – and perhaps beyond, saying austerity will continue "as long as is necessary".
Mr Clarke is then asked about certain Conservative manifesto commitments, like transferable tax allowances for married couples – could they still be implemented, given the state of the economy?
"The question seems to surprise Mr Clarke, who chuckles. “We never committed ourselves to married couples’ tax by the end of the parliament, did we?” When it is pointed out that such a commitment was indeed made, by none other than Mr Osborne, Mr Clarke erupts into full-blown hilarity. “I’m married, I’m not counting on it. I don’t remember anyone promising that kind of thing.”
This will not please those Conservative MPs who wanted a proper commitment to marriage in the tax system. However, the BBC reports that Downing Street have called Mr Clarke's answer "a comment, not a statement of policy. Any tax changes are a matter for the chancellor."
The last of the Tory Europhiles can never seem to get through an interview without being asked his latest thoughts on the European question. As other Cabinet members consider life outside the European Union, Mr Clarke says:
"We are regarded by the outside world with more confidence than almost any other western democracy. To start threatening, throwing into the air, our relationship with the outside world, with the global economy, would I think be very reckless. I frequently say that to several of my colleagues: there seems little point in opening up the debate at the moment about our membership of the European Union."
If that wasn't enough to annoy Eurosceptics, Mr Clarke's suggestion that considering our relationship with Europe is simply irrational scapegoating will probably do the trick:
"At times of crisis, times of recession, people start grumbling about things. Some people get a bit anti-business, anti-wealthy, they start resenting foreigners, start finding strange theories about what got us into these problems. Politicians trying to govern a country can’t take too much notice of that."
One might be tempted to point out that "politicians trying to govern a country" do tend to have to take note of popular opinion if they want to be re-elected.
The BBC report Mr Clarke has corrected himself again on whether marriage tax breaks will happen:
"Then a second comment was released on Mr Clarke's behalf, which said he had no doubt the change would be introduced – but made no mention of a possible timescale. "He completely accepts it's going to happen," said a spokeswoman."