Clarke, Kenneth Harry

Clarke, Kenneth Harry
▪ 1994

      In May 1993, with his government in trouble and the U.K.'s economy still struggling to escape recession, Prime Minister John Major (q.v.) turned to one of the most combative members of his Cabinet to restore his fortunes. He appointed Kenneth Clarke as chancellor of the Exchequer. In so doing, Major took the risk of promoting the man most likely to replace him as Conservative Party leader if his premiership foundered.

      Clarke was born in Nottingham on July 2, 1940. Twenty years later he was one of a group of University of Cambridge undergraduates, including Michael Howard (q.v.), who became close friends and rose to positions of prominence. Clarke subsequently became a barrister (1963) before entering the House of Commons in 1970 as member for Rushcliffe, near Nottingham. He quickly established himself on the liberal, pro-European wing of his party. However, when Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in 1979, Clarke was immediately given a junior government post, working for a friend from his student days, Norman Fowler, at the Ministry of Transport.

      Six years later Clarke was promoted to the Cabinet as deputy employment secretary. In 1988 he was switched to health secretary, a post that gave him a chance to prove his fighting spirit. In the autumn of 1989 he imposed a pay settlement on ambulance workers, rejecting their demands for arbitration. They went on strike, refusing to respond to all nonemergency calls. He resisted calls for compromise, and eventually the strike was abandoned. Clarke won high praise from inside his party for successfully standing firm; in particular, the Conservative right wing warmed to his style.

      In November 1990, following Sir Geoffrey Howe's resignation from the Cabinet, Thatcher moved Clarke to education; four weeks later Major became prime minister and kept Clarke in the same job until April 1992, when he appointed Clarke as home secretary—one of the few Conservative opponents of capital punishment to hold the job. Following Norman Lamont's dismissal in May 1993, Clarke was appointed chancellor of the Exchequer. In his first budget, in November 1993, Clarke increased taxation, in contrast to his party's 1992 election pledge to keep taxes down. His measures were unpopular with voters, but his main concern was to please other Conservative MPs. And they, almost unanimously, welcomed the robust and confident way in which Clarke had overcome his first difficult hurdle as chancellor. (PETER KELLNER)

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Universalium. 2010.