‘We need to focus less on personalities and trivia’: Tory grandee Ken Clarke defends Therese Coffey as ex-Cabinet minister says new Health Secretary shouldn’t be judged for enjoying a cigar and a drink… as he did
- Ken Clarke hits back at critics of new Health Secretary Therese Coffey
- Critics have recently focused on Ms Coffey’s drinking and smoking habits
- But peer says she should be judged purely on her success in charge of NHS
Lord Clarke, who was health secretary himself between 1988 to 1990, called for a reduction in the focus on ‘personalities and trivia’ in British politics.
He insisted that Ms Coffey’s success, or otherwise, in overseeing the NHS would have ‘nothing at all to do with her smoking and diet habits’.
The peer described how, during his long political career, he has not thought to quit smoking as ‘it’s a nice part of my lifestyle’ and that he ‘willingly incurred’ the health risks.
Since being appointed as Health Secretary – as well as Deputy Prime Minister – earlier this month, Ms Coffey has admitted she is ‘no role model’.
Critics have shared a famous picture of her clutching a glass of fizz with a cigar in her mouth while she partied with fellow MPs in 2015.
Since being appointed as Health Secretary – as well as Deputy Prime Minister – earlier this month, Therese Coffey has admitted she is ‘no role model’.
Lord Clarke acknowledged how – when he was in the health department himself – he ‘certainly needed the occasional smoke and I certainly needed the occasional drink’
Speaking to the Sunday Times, Lord Clarke noted that Ms Coffey ‘happens to lead a relaxed way of life’ but hit out at her detractors.
‘The criticism of her appearance and habits is tabloid newspaper rubbish,’ he told the newspaper.
‘I was a real butterball when I was a minister, much heavier than I am now. And I would do my best to keep my tie straight — but I didn’t always remember.
‘We need to focus less on personalities and trivia, and more on proper reporting of serious policies. That’s far more important.’
Ms Coffey is a close ally of new Prime Minister Liz Truss and has been tasked with overseeing the health service ahead of what could be another tough winter for hospitals.
Lord Clarke described the state of the NHS as ‘one of the biggest crises facing the country’ but insisted Ms Coffey should be judged on her record in office alone.
‘Her success or otherwise — and I hope she’s very successful — has nothing at all to do with her smoking and diet habits, despite recent criticism,’ he said.
‘This winter is going to be very rough in the National Health Service and we are going to have strikes in large proportion all over the public sector, probably way through the winter.
‘When you’ve a real catalogue of crises, the one thing we don’t want to start judging ministers on is their personal lifestyle — as long as they’re not doing anything illegal or immoral or that otherwise makes them unattractive people.
‘Whether or not Thérèse succeeds is all to do with her ability to lead a team, take the right decisions and get them implemented — and go through the necessary process of reform and raising the required money from the Treasury so that the NHS functions normally.’
Describing his own lifestyle, Lord Clarke acknowledged how – when he was in the health department himself – he ‘certainly needed the occasional smoke and I certainly needed the occasional drink’.
The 82-year-old also became renowned for having a glass of whisky in the House of Commons while he delivered Budgets during his time as Chancellor in John Major’s government.
‘There are tough days when it definitely is a good idea to sit down and just relax for a minute,’ he added.
The former Cabinet minister insisted he didn’t feel guilty about his own smoking habit, even while at work.
‘I do acknowledge the change in mood and these days would have more regard for people who don’t smoke,’ he said.
‘But life has risks and smoking is one I’ve willingly incurred because it’s a nice part of my lifestyle — I’ve never made any attempt to give up.’
Former health secretaries who smoked and drank
KEN CLARKE (Tory Health Secretary, 1988-1990)
Ken Clarke in Potters Bar, 2001
Billed the ‘Big Beast’ of British politics, former Chancellor and Health Secretary Ken Clarke was known for being overweight and having an unhealthy lifestyle – although this was a fact that was often celebrated.
In 2017, ex-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn joked how he had once seen Mr Clarke in a tea room of the House of Commons ‘eating bacon sandwiches, drinking super-strength lager and carrying a cigar whilst taking a break from a debate on healthy living’.
Mr Clarke on Budget Day 1995
Mr Clarke also famously drank whisky in the Commons when giving his Budget as Chancellor in the 1990s – the only time alcohol can be consumed in the Commons chamber.
In 2019, he told how he ‘used to drink copious amounts of beer’ – but ‘now three pints is too much for me’.
JOHN REID (Labour Health Secretary, 2003-2005)
John Reid has a cigarette, 1999
John Reid angered health campaigners in 2004 when he said smoking was one of the few pleasures left for the poor on sink estates and in working men’s clubs.
The comments by Dr Reid, who had a 60-a-day habit at one stage before giving it up in 2003, came at a time of much debate about a ban on smoking in enclosed public places which was eventually passed in July 2007.
It was also claimed by biographer Tom Bower that in 1991, Dr Reid was drunk one day in the Commons and tried to force his way onto the floor to vote – then punched someone who tried to stop him, before being wrestled to the ground. Dr Reid gave up alcohol in 1994.
ANEURIN BEVAN (Labour Health Secretary, 1945-1951)
Aneurin Bevan, who was part of Clement Attlee’s pioneering post-war government, is considered the father of the National Health Service.
He was made Minister for Health – as the post was then known – in 1945 after Labour’s stunning election victory.
Before the election, he had led the campaign for the creation of the NHS, which provided free medical care to all for the first time.
Despite his passion for the nation’s health, Bevan was also a smoker – as was extremely common at the time.
A photo shows him smoking whilst sitting on the end of a patient’s bed, with the ash tray resting on the duvet.
Despite his passion for the nation’s health, Aneurin Bevan – the father of the NHS – was also a smoker. He is seen above smoking while visiting a patient in 1950