“Good cigars and whisky are the best protection in this current health scare.”
It’s 11th March 2020. Talk of a global pandemic has far surpassed the rumour stage and as former Health Secretary Kenneth Clarke talks to me live from Westminster, we are just five days away from the Prime Minister enforcing a total lockdown of the UK.
Earlier in the day Rishi Sunak promised the NHS that it would get “whatever resources it needs” as he laid out a £12 billion plan to cope with the demand of Covid-19. It was a bold statement for any Chancellor of the Exchequer to make; more so from one presenting his debut budget.
It’s also a lot of money if all we need is a wee dram and a large stogie.
To hear Kenneth Clarke back the chancellor feels akin to having a kind uncle tell you the lightning outside can’t hurt you.
“The budget was very good,” the former MP for Rushcliffe announces in a tone that offers reassurance as much as it does expertise. “Chancellor for 4 weeks, in very difficult circumstances and facing imminent uncertainty, I thought he delivered extremely well.”
It is the sorcerer giving affirmation to the apprentice. Although given the global crisis ahead, it is the younger of the two men who has had to deliver some financial sorcery this time around.
I don’t think anyone is going to get upset by the money he has made available.Ken Clarke on Rishi Sunak’s first budget.
Kenneth Clarke previously held the office of chancellor in John Major’s government from 1993 until 1997, so he knows what it is to deliver a budget or two. Yet despite having served the people of the Nottinghamshire constituency where he was born for 49 years, he’s never had to face the challenges staring the current incumbent in the face.
“He had to commit himself to do whatever is neccessary to minimalise the problems we’re going to get. I don’t think anyone is going to get upset by the money he has made available.”
To hear Kenneth Clarke back the chancellor in such a way, at such a time, feels akin to having a kind uncle tell you calmly that the lightning outside can’t hurt you as you sit by a fireside.
It’s hard to imagine this is the same man – the man nicknamed The Big Beast by the UK press throughout his various cabinet roles – who, as Secretary for the State of Health, argued with and convinced Margaret Thatcher to banish her plans for the introduction of US-style medical insurance in the UK.
I can’t imagine the voice of a calmly uncle being able to do that, can you?
There is, of course, still an element of old Ken there. Six months have passed since he was booted out of the Conservative Party for voting against the government, effectively putting an end to the Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plans for a No Deal Brexit.
His political career ended with a 2 month stint as an independent candidate, although he still sat with his former colleagues on the Tory benches.
And even though he no longer holds his hometown seat, he still very much holds his own opinions.
“I would’ve raised some taxes in this budget, myself,” he offers. His voice rises with something bordering on excitement at the chance of sharing his chancellor knowledge once more.
“I would have taken the opportunity to raise taxes which I think should’ve been raised before, but I wouldn’t have frozen the duty on all the alcohol.”
He adds a thought so quickly that he almost interrupts himself. “I would on whisky, because it’s being hit by Donald Trump’s tariffs.”
Ah yes, whisky. We’ll return to that shortly.
I point out today’s budget has a more than passing likeness to those delivered by Gordon Brown, the chancellor who took over from him when New Labour came to power in 1997.
It was a comment that ignites a spark in the former Father of the House that belies his years.
“There are times when you have to increase spending and times when you don’t. Gordon increased spending massively during an artificial boom! He spent all the tax revenues and he borrowed on top.”
He’s 79-years of age, Ken Clarke. But just then he was back on those green benches, delighting in the to-ing and fro-ing of party politics.
“This was a most unusual budget because we simply don’t know how hard we’ll be hit by the coronavirus crisis,” he says, non-partisan.
Two unique bookends belong to Ken Clarke’s career in the government. He became the first ever Secretary for the State of Health when the position was created during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. He is also, to date, the last cigar-smoking Health Secretary.
“And I still smoke my cigars,” he confirms.
“I think good cigars and whisky are the best protection for someone like me in this present health scare.”
That’s quite the revelation from the man who once held the nation’s health in his own hands.
“This is just a joke, before anyone gets wildly excited,” he points out.
“I don’t think it’s what your doctor would recommend.”
And as he laughs, it’s time for Kenneth Clarke QC to go into the evening: to enjoy more discussion, more insight, and undoubtedly, more cigars.