Alan Watkins: Why Mr Clarke will be third time unlucky

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The Independent Online

At this time of year I do as the examiners tell us. Accordingly I compare and contrast the fates of - and the fashions in - two politicians, Mr Tony Blair and Mr Kenneth Clarke. The wisdom of the wise is that, after his unsuccessful shots at the Tory leadership in 1997 and 2001, it will be third time unlucky for Mr Clarke.

The progressive vote will, we are told, be split, with the result that Mr David Davis will turn out to be the easy winner. This may be correct. And while the spectacle of little-known Conservatives announcing themselves weekly as candidates for high office undoubtedly has its comic side, we should perhaps remember that there were five candidates in 1975, when Mrs Margaret Thatcher won, and the same number in 1997, when Mr William Hague was top.

Before Mr Hague, only one Conservative leader of the 20th century had failed to become Prime Minister. That was Austen Chamberlain, whose memory thus survives as the answer to a pub-quiz question (though several others reached No 10 without having fought a successful general election). Since Mr John Major, there have been three Conservative leaders who have failed to get into Downing Street. Two of them gave up after the first attempt.

To most people who are not professionally involved with the Conservatives in one way or another, the most likely candidate to break this sequence is still Mr Clarke. But, so his numerous detractors in and around the party say, he is too old, being due to draw his pension on 2 July.

Besides, he is too fat. Indeed, a writer in The Spectator the other day asserted with the utmost confidence that the public did not like politicians who were fat. Well! Quite apart from what my mother taught me about the rudeness of making personal remarks, several popular sayings (about glass houses, motes and beams, pots and kettles) come readily to mind. We are few of us oil paintings. Moreover, the editor of The Spectator, Mr Boris Johnson, is - how can one put this? - not short of the odd kilo himself. He is one of the most popular politicians in the country, even more so than Mr Clarke.

But age and weight are what the old Iron Curtain countries used to call "pretexts" when complicated negotiations with the West about arms-control or whatever used to break down during the Cold War. The real charges against Mr Clarke are two.

One is that he played a crucial part in the fall of the lady in 1990. This derives largely from a phrase in her own account of the coup, though I suspect it originated from her ghost-writer Mr Robin Harris. She described him as "robust in the brutalist style he has cultivated". He did not, as was widely reported at the time, threaten to resign unless Mrs Thatcher went. He merely echoed the majority of the Cabinet who formed that fatal Wednesday procession and predicted that she would lose if she fought Michael Heseltine in the second ballot.

The other charge against Mr Clarke is that he is a European. He is certainly of that generation coming to maturity in the 1960s which saw a united Europe as the medicine for the nation's ailments and possibly for those of the entire world as well. Scores of politicians think in the same way.

One of them is Mr Blair. Indeed, he told the European Parliament last week that he had opposed the Labour Party's policy of withdrawal from Europe without a referendum which had appeared in the 1983 manifesto - and under which he had first been returned to Parliament. I am unable to recollect him making any great fuss at the time but am prepared to take his word for it, even though experience shows that this is a hazardous procedure to follow where the Prime Minister is concerned.

The very same Conservatives who tell us that they would never vote for Mr Clarke because of his love for all things European are nevertheless prepared to cry "Ear, ear" when Mr Blair comes down to the House and outlines his new vision for Europe, whatever that may be exactly. At one minute, the British rebate which Mrs Thatcher secured in 1984 is engraved in granite, never to be chipped away. A few seconds later, however, it is naturally open to negotiations, with - equally naturally - the entire Budget being open to question too, not least the Common Agricultural Policy which the United Kingdom agreed most recently in 2002.

I was about to write that there had been nothing like it. But that would not be quite true. In 1967 Harold Wilson and George Brown embarked on a grand tour designed to get us into the Common Market, as it was then called, Wilson announcing that we would not take No for an answer. As I wrote at the time, this was rather like announcing, before climbing into the ring with Muhammad Ali, that you had no intention of being knocked out.

The punch was duly delivered by Charles de Gaulle, who had struck the same blow against Harold Macmillan a few years previously. Wilson was then succeeded by Edward Heath, and de Gaulle by Georges Pompidou, and we were admitted in January 1973. By this time Labour was against the project, as it remained till Wilson unexpectedly won the election of February 1974. There followed a largely decorative renegotiation, and the referendum cementing our membership in 1975.

But compared to Mr Blair, Wilson was a mere apprentice in the mirror-shifting trade. Mr Blair would have taken us into the euro if he had not been prevented by Mr Gordon Brown. The referendum on the subject has now trickled into the sand. The referendum on the constitution has likewise been diverted to fertilise other pastures, though Mr Blair may be in for a nasty shock if the European authorities decide he has to hold one after all.

In those faraway days when he was promising that a referendum would take place - partly to embarrass Mr Michael Howard and partly to please Mr Rupert Murdoch - there was no doubt that he and the Government would be campaigning for a Yes. There would be none of that libertarian nonsense (to use one of Mr Blair's own phrases) which Wilson tolerated in allowing the members of his government to agree to differ in 1975. New Labour would be positive; disciplined; in the argot of the day, focused. No longer. Mr Blair has seen an entire new world to conquer in, as Mr Alastair Campbell might put it, the People's Europe.

I would enter one word of caution. All British newspapers exaggerate the feats of the English abroad: in politics, in show-business and in sport, even when the result makes boasting difficult. Mr Blair benefits accordingly. Even so, Mr Clarke could do with some of his skill over Europe.