Ken Clarke is a Big Beast in the political jungle. He is not physically imposing, like Tony Blair, or Clarke’s old ally Michael Heseltine – he is shorter and more rotund than they – but his immensely long career and the blunt confidence and common-sense language he uses to express what he thinks has made him metaphorically big, someone whose opinion cannot be ignored.
One example will illustrate his extraordinary place in contemporary politics. When David Cameron was just starting out as a young researcher and George Osborne was still at university, 24 years ago, Ken Clarke was a major player in the events that brought down Margaret Thatcher. It is on record that he was the first to say to her face that she ought to resign. What was not known – until now – is that he delivered that blunt message after being invited to take over as her campaign manager.
He thinks that today’s politicians are diminished compared with the political stars of the 1970s and 1980s, but not for lack of ability. “The calibre of people attracted to the House of Commons remains extraordinarily high,” he said. He even singled out a member of the present Cabinet who he thinks is up there with the political heroes of his youth – and surprisingly picked the Home Secretary with whom he once had a highly publicised row over whether or not an illegal immigrant had been permitted to stay in the UK because of his pet cat.
“To take an entirely objective example,” he said, “Theresa May has made herself a substantial figure at the Home Office. There is no doubt that Theresa really has become a big beast. I never had an angry quarrel with her. I occasionally disagreed with her, but all ministers do.”
But the political atmosphere has altered since he entered the Commons in 1970, as has the cast of characters drawn to the place. His early memories are of “old landed gentry with rolling estates” on the Conservative benches and “retired trade-union regional secretaries and 30-odd miners” across the other side – none of whom aspired to be ministers. Now, there are more full-time, professional politicians. He does not think that is necessarily bad, but it does mean modern MPs have less experience of the world outside politics.
Video: Clarke retired from government after 'good long innings'
He fears that the long shadow of the Iraq war is diminishing the UK as an actor on the world stage. He suspects that part of the reason David Cameron was defeated in the Commons when he proposed to punish the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons was a “sense of guilt” over Iraq. Clarke opposed the war at the time – unlike David Cameron and the majority of Tories – but acquits Tony Blair of the charge that he deliberately lied over Iraq’s weaponry. He remembers Blair addressing the Commons long after the invasion, still arguing his case with total conviction like “the last man living who still really believes they are going to find weapons of mass destruction… One of the funniest things ever said to me about Tony Blair – it was by Paddy Ashdown – was: ‘The trouble with Tony is that he always believes everything he says when he is saying it’.
“Nowadays, I slightly fear that the public have so far reacted to events in Iraq and Afghanistan that we are almost in danger of having a public opinion that doesn’t want to contemplate military force in support of big foreign-policy interests at all. Nobody in their right mind ever wants to use the military, but you do make yourself weaker if everybody realises that you’re never ever going to use your armed forces again.
“I hasten to add that I am not some sort of lunatic who is advocating the use of military force in Ukraine.”
He also laments that the rolling 24-hour news schedule has diminished the role of Parliament. “The shift of power away from Parliament and towards the media is probably one of the most substantial changes to the style of politics in this country,” he said. “Many, many things have changed almost beyond recognition since I was first elected but that is one of the most significant.
“We need a proper lively political media in this country, but the media, particularly the written media, has become ever more campaigning in its approach, and successive governments have been ever more influenced by their campaigns. It has changed the whole atmosphere of politics, and has made it more frenetic – two or three crises a week.
“That is why I prefer broadcasting. On this occasion, I’m giving you an interview, but I don’t often give newspaper interviews, and I won’t often give them in the future.”
There are a couple of newspaper campaigns running now of which he wants no part. One is against the Speaker, John Bercow, once a right-wing Tory, now accused of bias against his old party. “He’s a very good Speaker,” Clarke said. “John’s got pompous, but in my opinion all politicians get pompous. When I first met him, he was completely off the Richter scale, one of these mad right-wing people, but once he started his political trek across the spectrum, I started getting on better and better with him.”
Another non-issue, in Clarke’s mind, is the revived interest in documents that the maverick Tory MP Geoffrey Dickens passed to the Home Office 30 years ago, which allegedly named paedophiles in high places. “I remember these allegations being reported, but it fizzled out in two days, firstly because it was Geoffrey, and nobody took him remotely seriously, and secondly because he had no evidence to support any of it. It wasn’t a dossier: there were a few letters.”
He added: “As an old-fashioned politician, I think political leaders take too much notice of media noise, which I don’t think is very representative of the bulk of public opinion. But it’s a purely personal foible, so I won’t wax lyrical about it because I actually dislike hearing politicians grumbling about the media.”
That “media noise” must make arguing over policy with David Cameron a very different experience from arguing with Margaret Thatcher. “What I always liked about arguing with Margaret,” he replied, “was the only thing you were arguing about was what was the right thing to do. She genuinely was a conviction politician. She did not read newspapers and she took no notice of opinion polls, so you would thrash out what you were going to do, and then she would loyally stick to what you had both agreed.”
After a moment, he added sternly: “That is not meant to be in contrast with David.”
His arguments with Thatcher were fierce, yet in November 1990, when she failed to win outright in the first round of a leadership contest against Michael Heseltine, the former Chief Whip John Wakeham came up with an extraordinary proposal to see her through a second round. “He asked me to take over the leadership of her leadership campaign. My reply strongly indicated that I didn’t think she should run a leadership campaign, and that I was certainly not disposed to lead one,” he said.
Instead, Wakeham persuaded Thatcher that she should meet her cabinet ministers one at a time, starting with Ken Clarke – unaware that Clarke and Chris Patten had privately agreed to resign from the Cabinet to oppose her, if she fought on. He told Thatcher that her time was up. “I wanted her to resign because I didn’t think she could possibly carry on. The idea that she should fight a second ballot, scrape home by two or three votes and then just carry on as if nothing had happened was impossible. Her government was dead. Her support was melting away by the hour. It was one of our robust exchanges, but neither of us lost our temper. She tried to get me to ‘snap out of it’. She accused me of being defeatist; I remember that I replied that she had been defeated. There was no animosity. Sadly, afterwards, she became rather embittered.”
Clarke’s own ministerial career, which spanned 42 years, has ended amicably without a trace of bitterness, even over the three occasions he ran for the Conservative Party leadership only to lose to someone less well known and less experienced.
His political career is not yet over. He plans to return to Parliament after the next election, as the longest-serving Conservative MP, and may yet match Edward Heath’s record of 50 years in the Commons. All political careers are said to end in failure – but Ken Clarke thinks he can prove that he at least is an exception.