Clarke dismisses referendum call

Kenneth Clarke, the former chancellor, yesterday dismissed William Hague's call for a referendum on the outcome of the Amsterdam summit by saying that Britain was "becoming like Switzerland without the cowbells".

In the first signs of his readiness to speak his mind from the backbenches, Mr Clarke, the defeated challenger for the leadership, made it clear that he did not support the proposal by William Hague, the Conservative leader, for a referendum on the Inter-Governmental Conference.

The Independent has learned that Mr Hague had been prepared to offer Mr Clarke the deputy leadership, if he had been prepared to serve in his team, but Mr Clarke made it clear after the leadership election that he wanted to return to the backbenches.

Yesterday, Mr Clarke said on BBC radio that he did not want another "four or five years of collective discussion" as a member of the Shadow Cabinet. "When I looked at shadow government, I felt I've been there, done that; it's time, having been in government, to try to be an elder statesman," he said.

With a sideswipe at Baroness Thatcher, Mr Clarke denied he planned to match the brooding presence of Sir Edward Heath as a constant critic of his successor. "I think Ted behaved very much better towards Margaret than sometimes she behaved towards John [Major]," he said.

But he wasted no time in distancing himself from Mr Hague's call for a referendum. "I think we are having a lot of referendums in this country at the moment. Tony Blair seems keen on them as well. I sometimes think we are becoming like Switzerland without the cowbells," Mr Clarke said.

"I personally prefer the Parliamentary system. I am quite happy to listen to the arguments for a referendum on the Amsterdam treaty although I haven't had too many people pressing me to be allowed to have their say in a referendum."

Mr Clarke said the time would come when MPs would have the chance to debate the legislation that came from the decisions at the IGC. Mr Blair's office supported Mr Clarke in rejecting the idea of a referendum on the IGC, which Mr Hague called for at the Scottish Tory conference in Perth.

A Downing Street source said: "It's more to do with internal Tory Party politics than the IGC. What are we going to have a referendum about? We said we would retain the veto and we did; we got a deal on border controls and fish, which the Tories failed to do when they were in office."

While praising Mr Hague for appointing a balanced Shadow Cabinet, Mr Clarke expressed the hope that Mr Hague would not "move further to the right into hardline Euro-scepticism".

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