Simon Clarke cannot see a parapet without putting his head above it. While others who prospered during the brief and troubled prime ministership of Liz Truss have fallen silent, he speaks out whenever he reckons Rishi Sunak is leading the party to perdition.
For according to Clarke, interviewed in last week’s Spectator,
“If the leadership dramas of the past year have taught us anything, it is that a battle for the soul of the Tory party is under way. I am not a conservative: I am a Thatcherite really.”
Like Margaret Thatcher, Clarke does not regard the preservation of the status quo as either morally acceptable or practically possible:
“It would be lovely if life was as basically comfortable as a lot of One Nationers would like it to be. But it isn’t, actually. You’ve got to fight for reform, you have to challenge status quos and vested interests.”
Truss promoted him on 6th September 2022 to the post of Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, a role in which there was plenty of fighting for reform to be done, but 49 days later out she went again, and so did he.
Clarke has explained, in a piece for The Critic, why in his view it all went wrong. He says Truss was right to go for tax cuts to stimulate growth, and during her leadership campaign had agreed with him that these measures must be accompanied by “credible savings options”, as otherwise, he warned her, “we would be monstered”.
Clarke was at this point, as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, in charge of control of public spending, a role Truss had herself played from 2017-19, and they decided they would hold “a new spending review”, and discussed whether to go for departmental cuts of five or ten per cent:
“Her only caveat, quite reasonably, was that it would be better to identify specific saving plans in the run-up to a budget once safely in office, as opposed to in the heat of a brutal campaign. But the overall approach of securing those savings was not, I believed, in any doubt.
“There was, therefore, a conscious and spectacular change in her policy from mid-July to the end of August. The latter two weeks of August seem to have been pivotal. With an unassailable polling lead and most votes already safely cast by party members, Liz settled in at Chevening for a blizzard of meetings. Here her distaste for ‘abacus economics’, always present, won out over caution.
“She was well within her rights to point out that the guardians of Treasury orthodoxy are bad at conducting dynamic modelling of the positive impact of both lower taxes and supply side reforms. But this was not the time to try to test that weakness.”
In other words, the fatal flaw in Kwasi Kwarteng’s statement on 23 September was not that it cut taxes, but that it failed to cut spending.
The Conservatives now need, Clarke believes, to proceed with greater rigour, courage and radicalism. “The boldest measures are the safest,” as Horatio Nelson once put it.
Clarke presents his case with courteous logic. Even his opponents tend to describe him, in the words of a senior minister in the present Government with whom Clarke has crossed swords, as “a thoroughly nice man”.
But also an angry one. In the edition of Archive on 4 on 3 December 2022 entitled Liz Truss’s Big Gamble, presented by Nick Robinson, Clarke said:
“I believe a number of colleagues wanted her to fail. They never frankly got over losing the contest in the summer and they wanted her to fail.”
Last November, as the Government moved under pressure from southern Tory MPs towards abandoning house-building targets, Clarke warned in a piece for The Sun that this would be “a social and economic tragedy”, and a “disaster for the Conservative Party”.
He advanced the same argument with even greater brevity on Twitter:
“If you want to see what the future of the Conservatives is when we don’t build homes, look at London. Our collapsing vote in the capital is at least in part because you can’t make the case for popular Conservatism if you can’t afford to buy, or even rent.
“The flip side, why can we win in areas like Teesside? It’s at least in part because if you are a nurse or a teacher, you can still afford a proper family home.”
Clarke points the paradox that it is now easier and more natural to be a Conservative on Teesside, where it is still possible to buy a house, than in London, where buying a house has for most people become impossible.
Here is a problem which particularly afflicts the young, almost none of whom vote Conservative. Clarke, aged 38, became the first MP to support Next Gen Tories, a campaign set up to address the party’s “apocalyptic” polling (as he describes it) among the under 40s.
A week after Clarke’s Sun piece, the Government nevertheless yielded to the Nimby lobby and abandoned housing targets.
Another of his rebellions was more successful. Clarke put down an amendment that where onshore wind generation commanded local consent, it should be permitted. Truss and Boris Johnson both supported this, and the Government gave in.
Clarke had not suddenly adopted this policy. He wrote a piece for ConHome commending it in 2017.
In a question to Sunak just before Christmas, Clarke called for derogation from the European Convention on Human Rights, should this prove necessary to stop migrants crossing the Channel in small boats, something he described as “the key issue on the doorstep in my constituency”.
And he this week rejected with fury the accusation that dredging of the Teesside freeport has caused the death of marine life:
“I have read comments in the press about crustacean deaths in the North Sea over the past couple of days with mounting anger. A wave of misinformation is threatening real harm to real people across my home area of Teesside. Reports blaming dredging at the local freeport have failed to mention that the devastating die-offs occurred in October 2021 — 11 months before dredging for the Teesside freeport started…“this issue is still being raised because Labour Party and Green Party activists are determined to undermine the progress being made under the leadership of the Tees Valley Mayor and the Government. They see cranes, jobs and investment and this doesn’t fit their narrative. This anti-growth coalition can’t bear to see their former Red Wall stronghold bulldozed by Boris Johnson and now being rebuilt by the Conservatives, restoring pride, identity and purpose to one of our great industrial areas, somewhere that has undergone two generations of incredibly difficult economic transition.”
One hears Clarke’s anger, and his conviction that his friend and ally, Ben Houchen, the Tees Valley Mayor, is leading an industrial renaissance, not just applying in a passive way for grants.
Clarke was born in Marton, a suburb of Middlesbrough, in 1984. His father was a local solicitor and his grandfather had been a neurosurgeon in the local hospital.
He was in the sixth form at Yarm, a local independent school, in the year after James Wharton, who would gain Stockton South for the Conservatives in 2010, lose it in 2017, and is now in the House of Lords, having helped run Boris Johnson’s successful campaign for the Tory leadership in 2019.
Clarke won a scholarship to read history at University College, Oxford, where he was also President of the Oxford University Conservative Association. He qualified as a lawyer and worked as a solicitor for a City firm, Slaughter and May, before becoming a political researcher for Dominic Raab and Graham Stuart.
In the Acknowledgements at the start of Britannia Unbound, the slim volume in which in 2012 five recently elected Conservatives, Truss, Kwarteng, Raab, Priti Patel and Chris Skidmore, set out their free-market prospectus, Clarke is thanked for his help.
In 2015 he stood in Middlesbrough, a safe Labour seat, and although himself a staunch Brexiteer, was beaten into third place by UKIP.
He then became the Tory candidate in Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, a Labour seat, but a marginal one, containing much of the former Langbaurgh seat, held by Michael Bates for the Conservatives from 1992-97.
Theresa May called her surprise election in 2017, and Clarke was one of the six Tories who came through and captured Labour seats.
His is not, strictly speaking, a Red Wall constituency, for it had not been in Labour hands for generations, but it is very much that kind of territory, and because he entered the Commons two years earlier than others did in 2019, he has come to occupy a leading place among the Teesside cluster of Conservatives.
It is worth recalling that Hartlepool, taken from Labour by the Conservatives at the by-election in May 2021, is just to the north of Middlesbrough. This is a part of the world where astonishing Tory victories have occurred in recent years, Houchen’s victory in the mayoral election of 2017 being another instance.
Clarke, a fierce critic of Theresa May’s approach to Brexit, was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Boris Johnson, and was welcomed with open arms as being “younger and more sensible” than some of the MPs who had rallied at an early stage to Johnson’s cause.
He obtained early preferment, but in September 2020 resigned for “purely personal reasons” from the role of Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government, having fallen in love with a civil servant in his private office, while already being married, with a child, to someone else.
He returned to the Government in September 2021 as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, put in, some said, as Johnson’s man to keep an eye on Rishi Sunak as Chancellor.
While serving in this role he outed himself on Twitter as a sufferer from agoraphobia, explaining that this was why he had not appeared in a Budget-day photograph with the Chancellor.
There followed the leap to Levelling Up Secretary. He was the youngest member of Truss’s Cabinet, and also, at six foot seven, the tallest.
He likes to remark with pride that he was born a few hundred yards from the birthplace of Captain James Cook, “and I can think of few better ambassadors for a new global Britain than the man who discovered large parts of our world”.
Clarke likewise refers with pride to Gladstone’s description of Middlesbrough, on visiting the town in 1862 during its first industrial revolution, as an “infant Hercules”.
He, Houchen and others are now promoting, in the freeport, a second industrial revolution. This Teesside Toryism which is at once old and new, traditional and revolutionary, loyal and truculent finds no more lucid and impassioned advocate than Clarke.