No. They're not even fit to tie the laces

Here we go again. There are two kinds of cabinet splits. There are the ordinary ones; and there are the great splits between prime ministers and chancellors which have marked British post-war politics - Thorneycroft and Macmillan in 1958; Roy Jenkins and Harold Wilson during the late 1960s; the bitter Nigel Lawson-Margaret Thatcher grudge match of 1990. This autumn's argument between John Major and Kenneth Clarke is climbing into the same league.

How do we know? Party managers have been making heroic efforts to paper over the crack, insisting there is an ``agreed policy'' of neutrality on the single currency.

The trouble is, neither the Prime Minister nor Chancellor seem much interested in colluding with the official line of the administration they lead.

Mr Clarke, describing a policy of late entry into monetary union as ``pathetic'' was indulging in a wholly deliberate provocation - ``just baring his backside and daring everyone to kick it'', as a Tory official charmlessly put it.

Yesterday, it earned him one of the most vicious kickings that a senior Tory minister has had from the Tory press in modern times. It came in particular from the Murdoch empire, which both Mr Major and Tony Blair are so nervous of. The Sun said he should go or be sacked: ``Don't kid yourself that anyone would miss you, Ken . . . Clarke must be stamped on.'' Using notably similar language, The Times said he was dishonourable and brutally concluded: ``He would be less missed than he likes to think and little mourned.''

Given that Clarke is a chancellor with a rising economic reputation, whose pre-election Budget matters hugely to the Tories and who is speaking out bravely in what he believes is Britain's national interest, this is extraordinary stuff. A political lynch mob of compulsive disloyalists are now howling against the Chancellor for treachery - the treachery of arguing his case rather more moderately than they do theirs.

Most are not fit to tie the laces of his notoriously unhygienic suede shoes; and among the politicians in the lynch mob, there isn't one big enough to fill them.

What is Mr Major's attitude to all this? His message of support yesterday, after a junior minister openly attacked the Chancellor (put up to it, we hear), was cold and terse. Deliberately so, surely: Major's people have been briefing in ever-stronger terms about how angry he is with Clarke, and how strongly he personally opposes the single currency.

In this way, Major has been using the parliamentary lobby to send desperate semaphore signals to Clarke's bitterest critics.

The loss of Clarke would cause serious Budget problems, and perhaps market ones too: other ministers would go. Major, however, is continuing to push. After all, the Chancellor was teetering on the edge of resignation in April, and didn't go then.

Leftish Tories now fear a carefully planned ambush at the Conservative conference, when candidates in marginal seats will stride to the rostrum begging Mr Major to help them win in the spring by declaring himself personally against monetary union.

If Major ``let slip'' his own view, he would change the Government's policy: on such matters no prime minister speaks ``in a personal capacity''. That would panic many senior people in the City, who need the option of joining left genuinely open.

The clearing banks are among the businesses most affected and we should expect to see a few more names breaking silence soon, including the chief executive of Barclays, Martin Taylor.

So holding the line until May is the first purpose of the Clarkeites. But if the Tories lose the election, Clarke might still be in a pivotal position, not as a Tory leader, but as a factional leader in the new Parliament. Why? Because a Portillo or Redwood-led Tory opposition would lose the pro-European Tories. One said this week: ``I don't think anyone has ever behaved as disloyally as Redwood . . . a lot of us won't forgive him and we won't serve under him.''

As Prime Minister, Tony Blair would face just the same dilemmas and would have, no doubt, rebels on his benches. So pro-EMU Tory MPs could find themselves mattering to Britain's future in Europe, if not to the future of the Conservative Party itself.

These are deep waters. But as the anti-Brussels Tories scent victory, feeling themselves close to hounding Clarke out of politics, they should exercise a little modesty. He's a brave and tough man. It won't be as easy as that.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
people
News
John Rees-Evans is standing for Ukip in Cardiff South and Penarth
news
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
News
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
Sport
David Silva, Andy Carroll, Arsene Wenger and Radamel Falcao
football
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

The Jenrick Group: Multi Skilled Maintenance Engineer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Multi Skill...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£20000 - £21000 per annum: The Jenrick Group: This high quality manufacturer o...

The Jenrick Group: Electrical Maintenance Engineer

£30000 - £35000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Electrical ...

Recruitment Genius: Photo Booth Host

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company offers London's best photo booth ...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'