Alan Watkins: Mr Clarke to return? He's hardly been away

The best leader the Tories never had may yet accept a front bench role, but he should not be offered a peerage

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The greatest mistake the Conservative Party has recently made was not to elect Mr Kenneth Clarke as its leader. This was not merely the view of, probably, most of the commentators. It was also the opinion of the majority of voters, as expressed in poll after poll.

It was not as if he had been content to blush unseen after his departure from the Conservative government in 1997. The talk of the past few weeks about the imminent return of Mr Clarke was not a rewriting of political history exactly, but more a skewing of the course of recent events. For Mr Clarke has not retired from the contest. He had tried to become leader, not once, but three times.

The late John Biffen, the Leader of the House under Margaret Thatcher, once said that the greatest disservice which John Major had done his party was not to lose the 1997 election but to leave his party in such disarray. For this, Sir John, as he later became, was not solely, or even primarily, to blame. Our old friends, what Harold Macmillan used to call "events" played a part as well.

There were two main candidates: Michael Heseltine, who represented the past, and Michael Portillo, who saw the future before him. Alas Mr Portillo lost his seat, and so was ineligible to contest the internal party election that would be necessary; while Lord Heseltine suffered difficulties with his heart and was advised, not least by his wife, to retire from the rougher sort of politics.

And so Lord Heseltine has returned to his garden, or to his small forest, and appears on television; while Mr Portillo appears on television too, and writes an occasional column in what all old journalists have been brought up to call another Sunday newspaper.

In the first ballot, Mr Clarke was top, with Mr William Hague second. The three other candidates – Mr John Redwood, Mr Peter Lilley and Mr Michael Howard – were eliminated or withdrew. Mr Hague was elected convincingly on the third ballot. Mr Clarke was not only a European; he also represented the Old Guard. Mr Hague was hostile to Europe (as he remains to this day, if not more so). He was even capable of being depicted as a symbol of hope.

In those days the Tories confined their internal selections to members of Parliament, as the Labour Party did until 1981, and as the Tories themselves had done between 1965 and 2001. In 1997, a poll of local party chairmen claimed that Mr Clarke would have been made leader if the choice had been left to them.

By 2001, several things had changed. Mr Tony Blair had won another election. Mr Hague promptly resigned. There was a change in the Tory voting system whereby, after a ballot of MPs, two candidates would go forward to the party members. And Mr Portillo returned to the House as member for Kensington and Chelsea.

It is difficult, now, to remember the importance accorded to Mr Portillo in the home life of our own dear Conservative Party. He led the field in two successive ballots, in front of the mysterious Mr Iain Duncan Smith and then Mr Clarke. Later, matters went awry for Mr Portillo. The impression became current that there was something not quite right about Mr Portillo.

It was a matter of a handful of votes. Indeed, only one vote separated Mr Duncan Smith in second position from Mr Portillo in third. But, according to the rules, the difference was enough to eliminate Mr Portillo from the competition completely. Mr Clarke

surprisingly came out top among MPs, with Mr Duncan Smith below him.

The Tory activists – at any rate, the party chairmen – had been in favour of Mr Clarke for years previously. Now they had turned against him. In what was in its way a surprising result likewise, Mr Duncan Smith defeated Mr Clarke by 156,000 votes (rounded up) to 101,000.

Short-lived was the victory for Tory democracy, if such it was. Mr Duncan Smith was clearly a hopeless case, an embarrassment to all concerned. There was a long tradition of getting rid of Tory leaders, often in murky circumstances. The old ways were sometimes the best. Accordingly a motion of no confidence was framed, which in 2003 Mr Duncan Smith lost by 75 votes to 90. Instead of proceeding to an election, however, the party leaders decided to declare the winner unopposed. This was not Mr Clarke – who does not seem to have come into the reckoning – but Mr Michael Howard. He was regarded as "a safe pair of hands" and "a good debater" who would "unite the party" but "from the right, of course".

Like Sir John and Mr Hague, Mr Howard hopped off the platform: but unlike them, he did not take his leave at once. Mr Howard prepared the way for one of his protégés, Mr David Cameron (though he preferred Mr George Osborne). On this occasion the new system, which had disastrously produced Mr Duncan Smith, was given another outing, with a few embellishments, notably a set piece at the party conference, in this case between Mr Cameron and Mr David Davis.

This time, Mr Clarke entered the contest only reluctantly. It was as if he had wanted to show there was still some fight in the old trouper. Mr Davis led, with Mr Cameron second, and with even Mr Liam Fox ahead of Mr Clarke. It was, perhaps, an unsatisfactory and even a sad end.

But Mr Clarke has never been one to repine. As Samuel Johnson said of the man who wanted to be a philosopher, cheerfulness kept breaking through. Lord Tebbit said last week that Mr Clarke was "lazy" and that accordingly Mr Clarke was not fitted to serve in Mr Cameron's supposedly energetic crew.

Most of this characterisation derives from the impression formed of people's habits and appearance. Thus, Lord Tebbit's woeful countenance conceals a ready wit, even if it is often on the unkind side. In reality his differences with Mr Clarke go back to their service together in Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet in the 1980s, and, indeed, to her fall.

Mr Clarke's predecessor as Chancellor, Lord Lamont, tried to justify his reference to "the green shoots" of economic recovery under the Major government. This was after Baroness Vadera, who seems to be a remarkably silly minister, had used the same phrase about the supposed recovery under the present administration. Let us leave aside Lady Vadera – and who better to leave aside, though I am sure she is nice enough at home? The chancellors who laid the foundations of the economy under Mr Blair and Mr Brown were partly Lord Lamont but mainly Mr Clarke, before the excesses of financial capitalism made themselves plain.

The other factor which has brought about the disturbance in the political markets has been the reappearance on these shores of Lord Mandelson. His economic efforts in what is called the real world do not seem to have produced much effect. But the strange world of politics has certainly seen the results of Lord Mandelson's presence.

It would be unwise, I think, of Mr Cameron to bring back Mr Clarke into the government in the Lords. Perhaps he does not want to become a Lord. Many people do not. Much better to leave him in the Commons, and to keep an eye on Lord Mandelson from the Shadow Cabinet but from the lower house.

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