The son of a senior civil servant, Charles Clarke read Mathematics and Economics at King's College, Cambridge and went on to become President of the National Union of Students in 1975. He became a local councillor in the London Borough of Hackney, acting as Chair of its Housing Committee from 1980 to 1986. He worked as a researcher, and later Chief of Staff, to Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock from 1981 to 1992. His association with Kinnock and with the general election defeat in 1992 was expected to handicap him in his subsequent career, but he was to emerge as a high flyer.
Elected to the British House of Commons in the Labour landslide of 1997, Clarke lasted less than a year on the back benches before joining the government as a junior education minister in July 1998. He moved to the Home Office in 1999 and joined the Cabinet as Minister without Portfolio and Party Chair after the 2001 general election. He returned to Education as Secretary of State on October 24, 2002 after the resignation of Estelle Morris. As Education Secretary, he has defended Oxbridge elitism, encouraged the establishment of specialist secondary schools, and (allegedly) suggested that the state should not fund "unproductive" humanities research.