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Breakfast with Ken Clarke: a lesson in communication

That master of political communication, the old brown Hush Puppies warrior himself, Ken Clarke, breezed into Edinburgh to give the business community something to chew on at a breakfast event organised by the Scottish Council Development and Industry and the Words Agency was there to enjoy the fun.

Always worth listening to, whether dispensing amusing political brickbats, or Ken Clarkesometimes faded political bouquets, the Shadow Business Secretary had some interesting comments on where he felt the economy and business large and small was heading, and where the New Model Cameron Party sees its business and fiscal strategy priorities.

Most interesting was the typically candid admission that IF a Tory government comes to power, it will be unpopular for the first 12 to 18 months of its term, and as one who lived through the first years of the Thatcher Imperium, Ken would know.

On the key question of public debt, he made clear that there would be immediate efforts to cut expenditure as well as borrowing. But while this provoked frowns among those listening who depend for at least part of their turnover on public spending and others who fear that cutting fiscal support will send the economy into a second dip of recession, he did stress that any debt reduction would be tempered by the central intention to keep business buoyant.

That led on into his comments on taxation, which he admitted would have to rise, but not on business. As he put it: "Raising business taxes is a complete 'no-no' at a time of rebuilding the economy."

Another door on the past was firmly shut with Clarke's comments both on devolution and manufacturing. In the case of devolution he surprised many there by saying that not only was devolution now irreversible, but that it had in practice worked pretty well. And further than that, when questioned on the Calman taxation proposals, he called them "a very sensible evolution" of the current status quo. It was important, he argued, that devolution move forward to curtail the potential for conflict between London and Scotland, as less friction between the two meant less chance of an SNP-driven lurch towards independence.

Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, particularly for the survivors of Thatcherism, was the different tack, both in nuance and declaration, that emerged on manufacturing. Clarke made it clear that manufacturing was now back in favour politically and would be supported as a key element in the reconstruction of the economy.

However, this would be a different sort of British manufacturing, based on the excellence of research and development, marketing and technology, rather than the bashing of metal into any particular shape. The Tory position is that in terms of simple manufacturing, it is rare that Britain can compete on cost, but in terms of innovation and excellence there is a clear competitive advantage that will be fostered and broadened. The proof of that pledge will be in the jobs, so to speak.

Best of all was not so much what Ken had to say, but the easy way in which he says it. This is a master of the spoken word, at home with facts and with the gaps between them. To watch him carry a room with polish and wit, whether in the self-deprecating outlining of his own party's progress, or in the elegantly barbed demolition of his political foes, is a pleasure that goes far past the bounds of party politics.

Clarke is a Trad Jazz political performer, whose drumbeat party political banter fits well with his election stump solos, a triumph of substance and experience over the shallowness that swept into politics in the Blair years.