Profile: Charles Clarke, the serious operator

November 1, 2002

Charles Clarke sees education as an agent of change to a more equal society. He is likely to be as appalled as his old boss Neil Kinnock would have been at the idea of allowing the most prestigious universities to charge higher fees, writes Francis Beckett.

And he is enthusiastic about hypothecation - levying a tax specifically for, say, schools, hospitals and higher education through a graduate tax.

But he is nothing if not a practical politician. As president of the National Union of Students in 1975, he showed the ability to know when a battle was lost. He may decide that he has arrived at the Department for Education and Skills too late to stop top-up fees.

He will certainly take a greater interest in higher education than his predecessor, Estelle Morris. But his instinc-tive anti-elitism may bring him into conflict with Tony Blair's policy advisers, who favour the creation of a tier of top universities allowed to charge higher tuition fees.

Mr Clarke's old friends will be hoping that he shows the assertiveness with No 10 that he has shown in previous political encounters.

Mr Clarke became research assistant for Labour's new education spokesman, Mr Kinnock, in 1981. After the 1983 general election, he and Robin Cook masterminded Mr Kinnock's bid to become leader.

But when Mr Kinnock lost the 1992 election, Mr Clarke declined the chance to stay with him. Instead, he distanced himself from politics and founded a public affairs consultancy. But politics is in his soul. In 1997, he was returned as MP for Norwich South.

He was school standards minister from 1998 to 1999. He was then at the Home Office as minister of state from 1999 to 2001.

After the 2001 election, Mr Clarke wanted and thought he should get a big policy department. He became Labour Party chairman.

Mr Clarke will speak his mind but he will not be caught saying something disloyal. His political style is, perhaps, best summed up by what he said to one journalist: "You have to be very, very careful - if you're serious about power - about how you talk about things."

And Charles Clarke is very, very serious about power.

Francis Beckett was chief press officer at the NUS when Charles Clarke was president and subsequently became involved as press officer to Neil Kinnock's Labour Party leadership election campaign.

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