Profile: The man who would be charities minister

He started his political career as a Social Democrat, but is now creating a reputation as an up-and-coming Cameroon. John Plummer discovers what makes Greg Clark tick.

Greg Clark
Greg Clark

Greg Clark went to Cambridge University, worked in big business and has a safe seat in Tunbridge Wells, deep in the garden of England. He seems, on first impressions, to be a typical Tory MP.

But his true-blue present conceals a strikingly different past. The son of a milkman, he grew up in one of the most deprived areas of Middlesbrough, where he attended his local comprehensive school. He can therefore justifiably claim to be that rare political creature: a northern, working-class Conservative MP.

The Teesside accent may have softened but Clark, who was appointed shadow charities minister in November 2006, says his upbringing was the key factor in his political development.

It has been quite some development. Aged 41, he is regarded as one of the bright young things of David Cameron's new-look party. But who would have thought that a boy brought up in one of the areas most blighted during the Thatcher era would play a key part in Conservative social policy?

Political schooling

Not even Clark would have believed it in his teens. He joined the Social Democratic Party at school and led its student branch at Cambridge. "I was with the Owenite part that didn't merge with the Liberals," he says. The SDP collapsed in 1988. "It was pretty clear to me by then that the things that attracted me to the SDP - strong on the economy, strong on defence - were with the Conservative Party," he says.

It wasn't a common view in Middlesbrough at the time. The area had suffered terribly from the decline of British Steel and ICI, which Clark attributes to natural change rather than Tory policy: "Middlesbrough was dominated by two or three industries that were going globally through a period of reconstruction."

He thinks Conservative policies helped small businessmen such as his father, but hesitates when asked if he is a Thatcherite. He eventually says he isn't, but that he admires the former leader's strength of purpose and achievements. Clark says he never had any political heroes. "My views were shaped by growing up on Teesside, my family and my parents running a very small business," he says.

He accompanied his father on milk rounds under sufferance - "I was never a particularly early riser" - but enjoyed the door-to-door collections on Thursday and Friday nights and likens them to door-to-door political canvassing today. "I like the community aspect of politics," he says.

He attended St Peter's Roman Catholic Secondary School. Curiously, he has dropped the school's Catholic status from his CV. "It might imply I was a Catholic MP," he says, insisting he is "pretty relaxed" about religion. His wife, Helen, is Anglican and they attend an Anglican church.

Clark left Teesside to study economics at Cambridge. It was a different world, he says, and one he loved: "It was very stimulating."

After graduating, he worked for Boston Consulting Group, a US business strategy firm. "Within six months, I had been sent to Mexico to reorganise a cement factory, I worked for an airline in Iceland and did a project looking at sales of breathing apparatus in Argentina," he says.

In his spare time he wrote papers for the Social Market Foundation think tank. "I wouldn't say I was interested in a career in politics," he says. "I thought I would have a career in business with an amateur interest in policy." That changed in 1996 when he was appointed special adviser to Ian Lang, then trade and industry secretary. "I could see that to be around the table, where decisions are taken, is a great opportunity," he says. "That really opened my eyes to how stimulating and exciting politics is."

In 2001, the then Tory leader William Hague appointed him director of policy. "I expected to work for him for the next four or five years and instead ended up working for three different leaders," he says. How did he survive so many changes at the top? "I get on with people. I've never been a groupie, or factional."

The Conservatives published a manifesto for civil society in 2001, which Clark describes as "the germ of what was to become our green paper", Voluntary Action in the 21st Century, published in June. There were several steps along the way. Sixty Million Citizens, containing 16 proposals for the voluntary sector, was published under Iain Duncan Smith's leadership in 2003. Three years later, Duncan Smith's Centre for Social Justice published Breakdown Britain, a vast tome on the causes of poverty that was praised for its insight but criticised as moralising. The green paper is noticeably more measured in tone.

David Cameron asked Clark to become shadow third sector minister a month before Breakdown Britain was published. He had never worked in the voluntary sector but he had been responsible for charities and young people as a Westminster councillor. The Conservatives had hardly caused a ripple in the voluntary sector - who can remember the name of Clark's predecessor? (It was Andrew Turner.) Clark first shadowed Ed Miliband and now Phil Hope, but refuses to compare them. "I don't want to personalise it," he says.

He has been critical of the shortcomings of the Compact and a fierce opponent of changes to the rules on charity campaigning. He got embroiled in an ugly row with Sir Clive Booth over the Big Lottery Fund chair's accusation that the Tories were hostile to the sector. Booth apologised. Clark calls the row "very damaging for the reputation of the National Lottery" and a "disgraceful thing". But he adds: "We have accepted his apology. If you accept an apology, you agree to move on."

Letting rip

His disagreements with Hope may have been more gentlemanly, but he has not been afraid to let rip at the Office of the Third Sector, which he describes as "a rather emaciated creature. It doesn't seem to have much clout in Whitehall and I think it needs to be beefed up."

He has two main criticisms of the OTS. "One is that, even when they have gone in the right direction, such as creating the Compact, they haven't followed through," he says. His second criticism is that it likes to "micro-manage organisations it contracts with, trying to make them run in a government-approved way".

With the Conservatives 20 points ahead in most opinion polls, Clark could soon be trying to show he could do better. He is wary of sounding over-confident but admits "it would be fantastic to have the chance to put into effect things that could help the sector". Whether he would stick around in the ministerial backwater of charities is debatable. Clark admits he's ambitious. "If you are not ambitious in politics, you are in the wrong game," he says.

His elevation from Middlesbrough to minister would complete a remarkable personal and political journey, but he doesn't see it that way. "It's only in recent years that people say it's unusual, but when you are growing up you don't think much about it," he says. "I owe a lot to growing up in Middlesbrough and the family I have. These influences shape who you are."

CLARK CV
2006: Shadow Minister for the Third Sector
2005: Elected MP for Tunbridge Wells
2001: Director of policy, Conservative Party
2003: Elected Westminster councillor
1999: Controller of commercial policy, BBC
1996: Special adviser to Ian Lang, Secretary of State for Trade &
Industry
1991: Consultant, Boston Consulting Group
1986: Degree in economics at Cambridge University

FIVE THINGS YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT GREG CLARK

1. His first job was as a lifeguard at his local council pool. "I was never very sporty, but I was from a sporty family," he says. His milkman father ran a five-a-side football team and his family - he has three younger siblings - support Middlesbrough FC.

2. He married his wife Helen in a chapel at a charity hostel for homeless women in London's Soho district. It was the first charity of which he was a trustee. "We lived in Soho for eight years, we were part of the Soho community and I had become a trustee of the charity, so it felt very natural," he says. The couple have three children, but he does not talk about them or his private life.

3. When Boris Johnson was elected as mayor of London, Clark inherited his office in the Houses of Parliament. Johnson left behind a three-foot bust of Pericles, the Athenian statesman, which Clark has replaced with a smaller one of economic thinker Adam Smith.

4. He has a strong affiliation with charities for disabled people. When he was a boy, his family supported holidays for the disabled, and he is now patron of two small Kent charities: Pepenbury, which helps adults with learning difficulties, and Mental Health Resource.

5. Clark was elected MP for Tunbridge Wells with a 9,988 majority in 2005. A few weeks before the election, Voluntary Action West Kent invited all of the prospective parliamentary candidates to visit. He was the only one to reply and spent two hours visiting.

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