Ken Clarke – 2009 Conservative Party Conference Speech


Below is the text of the speech made by Ken Clarke on 6th October 2009 at the 2009 Conservative Party Conference.

I have done this a few times before – and I still enjoy it. Those who have followed my political career from afar and those who know me well will probably agree that I am not one of nature’s pessimists. I am trying to delay becoming a grumpy old man. I am also a realist.

And it is the realist in me that says we are set to take over the biggest mess that a Conservative Party has ever inherited from a Labour government.

It is amazingly true that Labour always winds up leaving behind an economic disaster. It has happened every time since the war. But this is far, far worse. It’s worse even than Margaret was confronted with in 1979.

So yet again it is our duty to repair the damage after those years of recklessness, and prepare the UK for a better future.

A lot of that work is economic. Above all the sound management of the public finances, which George and Philip spoke about this morning.

No-one believes Alistair Darling when he talks of halving the public debt in four years.

Gordon Brown wants to introduce a new law to make it illegal for Alistair to be as irresponsible as he, Gordon Brown was when he was Chancellor. What useless gesture politics.

Past sinners promise that they will be prosecuted in future if they sin again. George Osborne’s strong sensible policies on tax and spending and debt will be necessary – but will not be enough on their own.

Our debt crisis is not only the result of reckless spending. It is also the fall of tax income. A crazy financial bubble brought big fluffy tax takes into the Treasury. Gordon Brown spent it all in full – then borrowed more on top.

Now tax revenues from corporation tax to fat cat income tax have fallen off a cliff because the City, banks and business all crashed into recession.

Spending has gone up. Tax revenue has gone down. Result – colossal and mounting debt.

George has boldly and correctly declared the need for spending cuts. He also needs revenue. We need successful business to create wealth, jobs and economic growth – and profits from which to pay taxes.

I have been through more public spending rounds than most people have had hot dinners. I admire George Osborne and Philip Hammond and I completely trust them to succeed at that task. They have the hard bit of the problem. I and my team have the fun bit – getting the climate right for the best of British business to succeed again and to create the wealth and security for future generations.


New Labour has been a burden and a handicap on business that we can no longer afford. The world of New Labour is more bureaucratic than anything we have ever known. An over-powerful executive, bigger government, an ungovernable bureaucracy. We all feel it in our daily lives. Businesses, in particular small businesses, face far more than their fair share of it.

How much does it cost? Estimates vary. Everyone agrees it is a great and still growing burden. For our entrepreneurs it is not just money, it is wasted time.

The Federation of Small Businesses says its members now spend on average seven hours a week on official form-filling and red tape of one kind or another. The people who run the health service, education and the police would tell you the same.

To get Britain back in business, the excessive regulation that businesses – and the great public services – face has to be swept away. Managers should not have to deal with excessive regulations, countless government quangos and too many inspectors of one kind or another, when they ought to be getting on with making their businesses survive and grow, their public services improve and creating new secure jobs .


The instinctive dislike that we Conservatives feel for excessive bureaucracy is anathema to Labour. One thing New Labour never lost was the idea that the gentleman in Whitehall knows best. Socialists thought, and New Labour still thinks, that politics and government have the answer to everything. They can’t hold themselves back from wishing to have a policy on this, an initiative on that, a public protection intervention of one sort or another. Whenever we have a Labour government, government just gets bigger.

I don’t think any of this regulation, bureaucracy or legalism was ever introduced for malicious motives. The well-meaning nanny state is at the very heart of this system. A sort of puritan belief that everything can be so perfected that no risk of any kind is ever going to be taken. Parliament churns out legislation like a sausage machine. The tax code is twice as long and complicated as it was in my day. And British life and British business suffer.


We are publishing today a paper which was outlined earlier by John Penrose, which sets out our plans to win the battle against red tape. We need to protect the highest standards of health, safety, fair trading and honesty in business life. We are not going to lower standards. We do not need mountains of forms, thousands of non-jobs, hundreds of quangos in gleaming office blocks to achieve that. Regulations based on achieving outcomes rather than just blindly following box-ticking procedure, will actually work better.

John Penrose’s paper sets it all out. It is solid policy. It is a worthwhile read. We will introduce a system of regulatory budgets across government, that means that no new red tape will be introduced without a compensating cut in the costs and burden somewhere else. We will give each regulator and quango a ‘sunset clause’. That means they will automatically cease to exist after a set period unless they can prove their continuing usefulness. Finally, we will create a stronger and more assertive Parliament which can scrutinise new laws more effectively. We need better laws not just more laws.


This part of our policy passes my favourite test for economic policy making.

I’ve always thought that the most important job of the Business Ministry – and the Treasury come to that – is to make it easier for the small businessman in the Midlands to make his living, to produce a bit of prosperity and create some jobs. That was a guiding principle I often stated when I was Chancellor. It should be our guiding light now.

The question ministers must ask themselves is – are we making it easier for that businessman or businesswoman to thrive or not? And half the time, as they will tell you, this government’s getting in the way.

We are in the final stages of developing policies in many other areas. To plug the gaps in the venture capital market. To provide more apprenticeships and training opportunities. To develop our science and engineering. With James Dyson’s help, to ensure that our innovations in science and engineering are translated into businesses, services and employment in this country and not lured away by better business conditions for enterprise abroad.

Today – Deregulation. We will have to strive to provide the right environment for businesses, large and small, to grow. For if you succeed on that score, you provide the growth, the tax revenues, the jobs and prosperity which come with it. That is how to get out of trouble. Britain must be open for business again.


We need big British business as well. Big business needs to work with government in different ways. It needs government alongside it in markets across the world, where there is a political content in marketing. There are plenty of countries in the world where the government has got to be supportive to enable its own businesses to be in with a shout.

We don’t believe that Government can create national champions but those that emerge become our national champions, and we take pride in them. Some modern businesses require multinational scale, to be a success and take their fair share of the jobs and the prosperity that come from great new industries.

The UK’s future depends on these great industries – increasingly in new areas like high technology manufacturing and the creative industries. That means rebalancing our economy away from dangerous over-dependence on areas like financial services.

Try telling business people or politicians from the States, Germany or Japan, that you can have a successful wealthy economy without having any manufacturing. Only the British came to believe that. In 12 years of Labour Government, the number of manufacturing jobs in Britain has dropped by more than a third. We have paid for the error. Britain has to make things again.


The future lies in nurturing high-added value, technologically advanced, scientifically innovative, well-managed, aggressively marketed companies. Providing our young people with all the skills and the ability to contribute to those fields.

That is the mission on which all our team was focused when we presented Get Britain Working yesterday.


If an individual who wants to develop his own business can’t feel the Conservative Party is a friend, what exactly are we about as a centre right party?

If we say we all believe in free market economics then aren’t small businesses the best manifestation of the best qualities of free market economics?

If we want to have social mobility – and we do – have more small business.

If we want to have a less bureaucratic society, have more small business.

If we want to create jobs, have more small business.

Can we leave it to Brown and Mandelson? Led by David Cameron and George Osborne we need to do it ourselves.

Peter Mandelson displayed theatrical talents which we never suspected last week. From next May onwards he could have a future on the stage – and not just as a pantomime villain. He said I sometimes agree with him.

Yes I did – responsibly and in the national interest – agree with him on the future of Royal Mail. We agreed with him when he took his Bill through the House of Lords. And what happened? That weak and dithering Prime Minister – Gordon Brown – has stopped him bringing his Bill into the House of Commons.

Peter Mandelson’s boldest policy is now a symbol of paralysed indecision while the Royal Mail slips into insolvency and strikes.

So where has Peter Mandelson made his biggest mark on British politics so far? Ironically he is the man who saved Gordon Brown from the incompetent plotters in the Labour Party who were trying to overthrow him twelve months ago. That was the whole point of the Mandelson come-back. But for Peter Mandelson, Britain would have thrown off the burden of Brown as Prime Minister. Why, oh why did you do that Peter?

Gordon Brown contributed to the global crash by his failed reforms of bank regulation and his reckless Government borrowing.

Brown denied the crisis was here when it first hit us.

Brown denied that debt was a problem or that any of his spending and borrowing was unaffordable.

Brown was denying the need for any cuts at all in public spending or borrowing until only a few weeks ago.

For Britain, Gordon Brown is and was a large part of the problem – he can play no part in the answer.

So, as one comeback kid to another, Peter, why did you save Gordon Brown for the nation? The nation is not grateful.

And what is Gordon Brown’s main legacy going to be to the people of Britain? A terrible surge in unemployment.

Who would have thought it – that a Labour Government – a Labour Government – would ever preside over the biggest rise in unemployment in a single quarter since records began. Would Nye Bevan ever have imagined that twelve years of Labour Government would end with one in five young people under the age of 24 unemployed? That is the legacy for real people of Gordon Brown.

When I first started coming to this Conference – a long time ago – my great hero was a man called Iain Macleod.

Iain is, alas, little remembered now – he died in 11 Downing Street after a few weeks only as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

I can remember him charging the Party Conference with a striking phrase.

Labour was about to leave an economic mess behind to a Conservative Government. A mess it was but Iain could never have imagined an economic catastrophe as bad as the legacy that New Labour will leave to us.

Macleod said “Labour may scheme their schemes, Liberals may dream their dreams, but we have work to do”.

Mandelson is a schemer. Clegg is a dreamer, Cameron and Osborne are highly intelligent decent young politicians who have what it takes to do the work. And you and I still have the work to do to put them into Downing Street to lead our country to future economic security and success – to make Britain a decent place to trade and do business again.