Kenneth Clarke

(b. 1940)

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Margaret Thatcher (b. 1925) British Conservative stateswoman, Prime Minister 1979–90

John Major (b. 1943)

William Hague (b. 1961)

Douglas Hurd (b. 1930)

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(b. Nottingham, 2 July 1940)

British; Secretary of State for Health 1988–90, Education 1990–2, Home Secretary 1992–3, Chancellor of the Exchequer 1993–7 Clarke's father started his working life as a colliery electrician and then acquired a jeweller's shop. Clarke was educated at Nottingham High School and Cambridge, where he read law. He was active in the university Conservative Association and president of the Union (1963). A number of his fellow students later became Cabinet colleagues. He entered parliament as MP for Rushcliffe in 1970.

In his early years he was a member of the left-inclined Tory Reform Group and a defender of One-Nation Conservative principles, views which were not to the liking of the new party leader Margaret Thatcher. His career marked time under her. After a succession of junior posts he finally entered the Cabinet in 1985 as Paymaster-General and Minister of State for Employment. In 1987 he became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for Trade and Industry. In both posts he shared responsibilities with Lord Young of Graffham, who was in the Lords and the senior minister. Clarke was the department's spokesman in the House of Commons.

Clarke's opportunity to run his own department came in 1988 when he was appointed Secretary of State for Health. He was the force behind the controversial health service reforms; he rejected schemes for the privatization of health but introduced market-orientated solutions. In many of his posts Clarke found himself battling with what he regarded as the last vested interests—the professions. It was so with the doctors and was to be the case in subsequent posts with teachers and the police. In November 1990 he was moved, against his wishes, to run Education and Science. In this post he simplified the testing and national curriculum arrangements inherited from Kenneth Baker.

Kenneth Clarke was a key figure in the fall of Mrs Thatcher. When she failed to win sufficient votes in the first ballot in the leadership election in November 1990 he was the first Cabinet minister to tell her she should stand down. In the past he had been regarded as a possible leader, but he was not a serious contender in the leadership contest at the time and on the second ballot worked for Douglas Hurd.

The new Prime Minister John Major moved Clarke to the Home Office. His stock rose in this post and John Major came to rely heavily on him. Following the collapse of Britain's membership of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) in September 1992 Clarke was widely expected to become Chancellor of the Exchequer. He did so in April 1993 and had to raise taxes and cut public spending, with the aim of balancing the national finance. He was a successful Chancellor, presiding over a steady economic recovery, and his refusals in 1995 and 1996 to raise interest rates against the advice of the Bank of England appeared vindicated; inflation remained at its lowest for many years. He resisted pressures to make election-winning tax cuts in his budgets, believing that it was more important for the party to restore its reputation for economic competence. The Conservative Party was divided over further integration of Britain in Europe, and particularly over the British membership of single currency, with opponents growing in strength in 1995 and 1996. Clarke's support for both was a liability and he was bitterly attacked by Eurosceptics in his party and the press. From being regarded as the obvious successor to John Major in 1992 and 1993, his stock in the party steadily fell. In turn, he thought that Major was offering too many concessions to the anti-European Conservatives. He finished second to William Hague in the contest for the party leadership in 1997 and retired to the back benches. He did not, however, give up on his hopes to lead the party, but was unsuccessful in his challenges for leadership in 2001 and 2005. While his pro-European views continued to make him unpopular in sections of the party, his skill as a communicator and his popular touch (combined with his great political experience) saw David Cameron appoint him to the front bench as Shadow Business Secretary in early 2009 to provide strong opposition to the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson.


Subjects: Politics.

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