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Why Ken Clarke is the man for the moment

CLARKE KEN FRESH In every British election in modern times, voters have thought of themselves first and politicians second.  The urge to punish MPs has been less strong than the instinct to look after themselves.  And looking after themselves meant, above all, voting with their wallets - for the Party most likely, all other things being equal, to protect family budgets: to keep price rises and mortgage rates down, taxes as low as possible, employment high and growth going.

This is the first election in which voters' urge to punish politicians seems stronger than the instinct to look after themselves.  One would scarcely guess from reading the polls, or following the recent Cleggmania, that the bills for Brown's debt are ready for posting - in the form of climbing prices, dearer mortgages and soaring taxes: a triple whammy.  And all on top of record private as well as public debt.

If Brown returns to Downing Street, those bills will land on the doormats of millions of voters.  Family budgets will be severely pruned.  Living standards squeezed.  Homes put up for sale.  Jobs lost.  It's far from inconceivable that Britain's credit ratings will be downgraded.  There could be a fully-fledged financial and economic crisis of the kind last seen during the 1970s.  Yet this time round, voters are thinking of the politicians first and themselves second.  That those thoughts are of contempt, anger, disillusion and revenge doesn't diminish the paradox.

Perhaps there's a method in this madness.  Maybe the scale of the debt of the Brown years - with the worst deficit since World War Two, and public spending at 50 per cent of national income - is simply too frightening to think about.  Better to stroll about in the April sunshine, and try to ignore the chill wind.  Or shrug one's shoulders, muttering that all politicians are the same - so none of them will tackle the deficit anyway.  Or threaten to use Nick Clegg as a boot to kick the system.

Some tax rises are uavoidable.  The question is how many - and on what scale.  Voters are under no compulsion to return Brown to Downing Street - maximising those rises, and yoking them to higher prices and mortgages. Brown's bills don't have to go in the post.  A Conservative Government would start scaling them down - freezing public sector pay, stopping tax credits to better off families, cutting contributions to most Child Trust Funds, capping public sector pensions, saving £3 billion a year in Whitehall and quango costs, scrapping ID cards, ending the NHS National Computer scheme, abolishing regional planning, stopping benefits for those who refuse work and reducing the number of MPs by 10 per cent.

The Party's response to the Clegg poll frenzy has been to stick to its guns - making the case for the Big Society and real change.  The media's response, having built Clegg up, is to start knocking him down.  But it's stating the obvious to say that if the voters' mood on May 6 is where the polls find it today, there'll certainly be a hung Parliament, probably a Brown premiership, possibly a Brown/Clegg coalition.  David Cameron's task in the remaining days of this campaign - no easy one -  is to shift the mood: to concentrate voters' minds on the threat to their living standards, jobs and homes; to persuade them to think of themselves first and the politicians second.  If you're certain Brown must go, he can say, the only alternative's to give me a chance.

This mission is compatible with staying the course.  After all, there'll be no Big Society if Britain has a Small Economy, shrunk by debt and the deficit.  And that there'll be no change if Brown wins (though, as Tim hints here, Clegg is always likely to trump Cameron as the change candidate).  But above all, Cameron can claim that saving Britain's economy is the Conservatives' historic vocation.  It's a tune that we all know and sing naturally, without artificiality, with authenticity.

To carry it off, Cameron must be complemented by someone with convincing credentials on the economy.  Someone with a track record of making it work.  Whose warnings have authority.  Who's respected by floating voters.  Boris Johnson has unique strengths as a politician, and a Mayoral part to play as a voice for the City, but his should be a supporting part: for the main role, experience in government is required.  Step forward, Ken Clarke - weathered, crumpled, completely unspun: the antithesis of the slick modern politician.  The Party needs him off those regional tours and on platforms with its leader.

Clarke is unashamedly part of the old politics.  But if the Party's to wrench the voters' gaze back to the economy, this is not a weakness, but a strength.  Raised in an era of self-confident politicians, he knows his own mind, and projects command and assurance.  Cable has lent a dubious weight to Clegg's pitch on the economy.  Clarke adds a real depth and breadth to Cameron's.  This is why Cameron and Osborne brought him back to the Shadow Cabinet, after all.  And he's an incentive to take on Brown - the man who wasted his legacy as Chancellor.  To gripe about his record on Europe is to fail to grasp the importance of the moment. Clarke's the man to look the voters in the eye, and ask them if they really want the certainty of collapse under Brown, or the chance of recovery under Cameron.

Paul Goodman


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