Politics: Clarke: My part in William's triumph

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The Independent Online
FOR A man supposedly buried 10 feet deep by a Eurosceptic Tory party's electoral success, Kenneth Clarke is showing alarming signs of life behind the cigar smoke. The guffaws are as frequent and infectious as ever, and the body language as unrepentant. For a start, he explains that it is very significantly to the credit of himself and Michael Heseltine that William Hague did so well.

Breathtaking cheek, or what? Not so, insists the former chancellor. "The Conservatives would not have done so well if I had started making speeches defending the euro. That may sound immodest but it's true... I think that the silence of the Conservative pro-Europeans was a rather crucial element in this extraordinary result. It did show the advantages to the party of not having public rows in the middle of an election campaign. You may think that's an elementary lesson but it has taken five years to learn it."

Mr Hague refused to say he would "never" enter a single currency, did say he would never leave the European Union and reaffirmed that that MPs would be free to campaign according to their views in a referendum on economic and monetary union (EMU). Mr Clarke and his colleagues stuck to their pre-arranged plan of keeping out of the campaign, in Mr Clarke's case by spending a lot of time abroad, "doing one photocall in Oundle". Whenever pro-European colleagues showed signs of letting their exasperation show, Mr Clarke got on the phone and told them to stop.

But did Mr Hague not call for the National Changeover Plan on the euro to be scrapped? "Well, everybody knows I don't agree with that. I didn't agree with a lot of other things that William Hague said about higher taxes and the danger of the euro because it was weak, but it didn't seem to me a suitable time for me to engage in a debate," Mr Clarke said. Despite some "hairy" and "excited" rhetoric "he never actually went beyond that". As a result, Labour, which had been relying on a public Tory bust-up, fought a "brain-free" and "completely useless" campaign.

But surely he was disappointed with a result that had been so widely interpreted as a rejection of his own views on Europe? Not a bit of it, least of all in a poll of just 23 per cent. "I am extremely satisfied we have defeated a whole lot of Blairite clones... the Conservative MEP list contains more people from my wing of the party than Eurosceptics. A lot of my friends got elected."

Nor does he see this as a defeat for the euro, which he still strongly believes Britain should join, once the conditions are right. The pitiful turn-out "shows you are not going to be able to fight an election on the single currency". Instead, there will be the economy - on which Labour is "getting away with murder" - the constitution, health and education.

Above all, he believes, the campaign makes the question facing Tony Blair of whether he should start trying to warm public opinion towards the Euro even sharper. "Blair now knows we won't help him win elections against our own party. The one piece of advice that can't be given to him any more is, `Don't do it yet because it is doing so much damage to the Conservative Party'."

Mr Blair, he is glad to say, has stuck to his policy of going into EMU if and when it is in the national interest. "But the policy is not deliverable unless he actually campaigns for it. I always said one day we would discover what TB is made of and we'll now discover whether he's a total ditherer."

He finds it "totally incomprehensible" that Mr Blair thinks he could get through the next general election campaign without fully declaring his hand on the euro. And he thinks that the euro would be less of an issue in the campaign if he did, because the electorate would know they would have a later chance to vote on it.

And no, he is not intending to turn up at the launch of the Britain in Europe campaign next month unless Mr Blair does. "I'm afraid my friends, including Michael [Heseltine], don't want a message of good will. They do actually wish to see Mr Blair on the platform."

Nor need Mr Blair worry this would mean a change of policy. "There isn't anyone saying we should join today. We are all saying if and when the conditions become right but we do need someone to counter all this stuff about how we're selling the gold reserves to prepare [for the euro] and how were going to have to pay for German pensions, and so on."

He cheerfully scorns the idea that the pro-European Tories should do the Government's work for them. "The Labour Party used to run war-rooms. I gather now when people approach the Labour Party and say can you reply to this they say can't you get Ken Clarke to do it?... The behaviour of the Labour Party has made me more wary of speaking out when they won't."

But behind the affability is the old hint of danger. His "advice" is that Mr Hague must ignore his "triumphalist aides" and keep the stance on the euro. "It would be a terrible mistake if the first Conservative success for five years were thrown away by a rush of blood to the head. It would be a terrible mistake that because they've had this unexpected success, they now abandon the formula that has worked and suddenly decide that The Telegraph must be right and we must become obdurate anti-Europeans.

"William hopes to be prime minister. That involves having a political strategy and party management which enables him to put back together the governing party. That sometimes involves fighting off the enthusiasms of your zealots.

"We have demonstrated that the Conservative pro-Europeans are capable of maintaining discipline and not wrecking a campaign. But obviously that requires the Eurosceptics not getting carried away and not altering the policy... William must not take the advice of hotheads who got carried away because 10 per cent of the population voted for them - including me, actually."

And that includes hotheads who own large newspaper groups. "I think there are people in the Labour Party and Conservative Party who allow The Sun and The Daily Telegraph to have too great an influence on policy. Pity the country that is run by its newspaper barons, is my view."

It would be "totally foolish" to follow the plans of such people - first revealed in The Independent - to walk out of the centre-right European People's Party. Nor is he in favour of expelling left-wing Tories such as Lord Gilmour or Sir Julian Critchley. "To be loyal to my old friends, I would be very sad if people who have had years and years of service to the party have been slung out because of the offence of letters to newspapers."

Without suggesting that the euro is yet performing as "a sure fire success", he is unimpressed by the right-wing press coverage of its perceived weakness and of the depiction of Germany as "basket-case" economy. "I do not know a forecaster who isn't forecasting a higher growth rate in Germany than in the UK... My biggest fear, medium term, is volatility - if the pound continues to go up and down against the dollar, we will be fearfully exposed in the world economy."

Certainly, Mr Clarke intends to remain as an MP. And since he confidently believes that a referendum on British EMU membership is winnable, might he not, as the man who was right when his colleagues were wrong", inherit his party as leader when it is reunited after Britain goes in? Another guffaw.

This, he chides me, is just a "journalistic cliche". People are always asking him if he will not rule out the leadership, suggesting that "my only interest in anything is whether or not it improves my chances of leading the Conservative Party. I would have thought my qualifications as a conviction politician are now quite impeccable...

"I actually think party politics are quite unpredictable two years ahead. I have never known anyone sensible forecast what the political debate is going to be in two years' time."