Contrary to common belief, Ken Clarke does not set, influence or seek to change Conservative policy towards the EU. He does, however, have an important position when it comes to Conservative policy on the Post Office. He is leading the Shadow Cabinet’s response on that. The government looks as if it is lost in the post. What should the Opposition do?
Current policy backs Peter Mandelson’s proposal to sell a minority stake to a private sector company. This policy happens to be very unpopular with Labour MPs, with the Postal employees and Unions, and with a section of the public. What are Mr Clarke’s options?
A- Back the Unions and oppose the botched partial privatisation.
Some Labour MPs probably think it is the Opposition’s duty to oppose. They privately would like him to find a reason why the Conservatives can no longer back Mr Mandelson. They see the attractive politics of siding with the Postal workers and the ever popular local postman. This would greatly increase their bargaining power, and would probably scupper the whole proposal.
B- Demand proper privatisation, and oppose the bodge
Some enthusiasts for privatisation think this will be bodged Labour style partial privatisation, which will prevent a future outright sale to the highest bidder. It could both damage the Post office and the taxpayer, leaving a future government with no option other than selling the balance of the shares to the partner at a knock down price or soldiering on with an unhappy partnership where the taxpayer has limited influence despite owning the majority of the shares. They would like the Conservatives to vote against the Labour idea for very different reasons to the Labour rebels.
C- Demand a seat to negotiate a better outcome
There is a third way. Mr Clarke could demand a place at the negotiating table, now it is obvious the Labour rebels are giving the government a hard time. He could say that Conservatives are still minded to vote for the government, but seek improvements and reassurances about the scheme. He could, for example, demand shares for the employees at the time of the partial privatisation. This could improve workforce motivation and would add a “people’s privatisation” element to the scheme. He could seek to rule out certain overseas monopoly state owned or influenced buyers for competition reasons. He could demand assurances that a future government will still have a majority stake of value which in defined circumstances it could sell to someone other than the minority buyer in this proposal.
What is he likely to do? I suspect he will think he has given his word on supporting the government’s scheme, and stick with it. It is, however, a very interesting situation where for once the Opposition has some power to influence.