Bruce Anderson: However popular he may be, Ken Clarke would be the wrong leader for the Tories

Stuck in the politics of previous decades, he is too complacent and too arrogant to rethink his position
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The Independent Online

As September approaches, the campaigning will intensify. David Cameron is making a big speech on Wednesday. It will be the first of a succession between now and the party conference, in which he will set out his manifesto. Mr Cameron has been irritated by the allegation that he is merely a bland left-winger.

That is not a description he recognises - but he does see the need to refute it and to prove that he is in earnest about running for the leadership. That, he always was. There was never any truth in the suggestions he only wanted to be king-maker or was merely putting down a towel for next year's sun bed. From the outset, he was serious about standing.

He also took the view that this leadership contest would be a long game. Back in July, rattled by the David Davis camp's claim that they had the battle already won, some of David Cameron's supporters were urging him to make a few dramatic gestures. Mr Cameron was unmoved, insisting that the man who was leading the marathon after the first quarter of a mile rarely won the race. From now on, however, the pace will steadily quicken.

Nor is it true that Mr Davis is already home and hosed. David Davis has around 60 supporters. He also has at least that number of pledged opponents, for he is a divisive figure. Abrasive, revelling in conspiracies and factions, surrounded by a team who are auditioning for the first, second and third murderer's parts in Macbeth, this is not a man who offers calm, long-sighted, unifying leadership.

That, of course, is part of his appeal to the flat-earth right-wingers who are not interested in party unity, and think that facile sloganising about tax cuts is all the intellectual content which the Tory party requires. It is true that, of all the candidates, David Davis has the most right-wing body language, but what does that mean in practice? I asked Michael Brown, known to readers of this newspaper as a perceptive Tory commentator, whether there was any reason to believe that, on issues of substance, David Davis was more right-wing than David Cameron. Mr Brown could not think of any reasons.

Apropos of body language, it is as well for all the other candidates that this will not be the decisive factor. If it were, there could only be one winner. Kenneth Clarke is the most jovial, voter-friendly figure in British politics. It is easy to see why many Tories, fearing that their party is currently condemned to life-long imprisonment in opposition without hope of parole, should turn to Ken. He is the easy answer. He is also the wrong one.

In politics, body language is not enough. Brain language is even more important, and Ken's brain language is all wrong. In two respects, he is wholly unqualified to be the leader of the Conservative Party. The first is his views on British domestic politics. The second, his opinions on Britain and the world.

Kenneth Clarke was education secretary, health secretary and home secretary. He occupied those important positions with brio and unlimited self-confidence. But where was the policy content: the intellectual drive? A first-class minister does not merely occupy his office and brush aside the challenges of the day. He defines the political agenda; he makes the weather.

To be fair to Ken, he did not even try to do that. Instead, as Chris Patten put it, he was a biffer. When confronted by opposition, his instinct was not to think out an answer but to sweep it aside. Kick the door down, chuck in a couple of stun grenades, truncheon the fugitives; that was Ken's breezy approach to the day's business.

There are two explanations for this behaviour. The first is intellectual laziness. Ken always found it quicker and easier to use force of personality rather than hard thought. The second was Europhilia. Since the mid-60s, Kenneth Clarke has been an unswerving believer in European federalism. Unlike Ted Heath or Michael Heseltine, he was never anti-American. On the contrary, hugely impressed by the USA, he concluded that only a USE could counter it.

It is natural that a devotee of European federalism should find it hard to take a sustained interest in British domestic politics. If you believe that all the important decisions should be taken in Brussels while British legislative institutions gently decline towards local government status, it is natural that you should cease to focus on the arguments of Westminster.

Since 1997, Ken has been waiting for Brussels to take over while making money by selling tobacco. He has always refused to serve on the Tory front bench, making it clear that he was only interested in being party leader, or prime minister. Until the recent failures of the Euro referendum, Ken would have used the position of leader to castigate Mr Blair for not doing more to advance the cause of Europe in Britain.

This also colours his attitude to the Iraq war. Ken Clarke was not the only senior Tory MP to oppose the war. So did Malcolm Rifkind, a more promising candidate for the Tory leadership if Ken Clarke was not standing. From the beginning, he was principled in his opposition to the war, which he regarded as wholly misguided.

Sir Malcolm is exasperated by the widespread assumption that anyone who served in a previous Tory cabinet is somehow disqualified from leading the party. He would point out that, only two years older than David Davis, he has vastly greater ministerial experience.

Malcolm Rifkind has not yet come to terms with David Cameron, and cannot accustom himself to the fact that someone who was not even in the Commons when he lost his seat should now be a principal contender. But Sir Malcolm's views on Iraq will not assist his own leadership efforts, although his position was more thoughtful than Clarke's.

One had the impression that Ken Clarke's main grounds for opposition were located in Brussels, and that if the EU had supported the war, Ken would have been happy to join in. I believe that Malcolm Rifkind's views on the Iraq war were wholly wrong. But they were delivered with great conviction. That cannot be said of Ken Clarke.

Until Mr Clarke finally leaves the House of Commons, in what one hopes will be the very long fullness of time, he will remain a beguiling, entertaining and charming figure. But he is not what the French call un homme serieux. Stuck in the politics of previous decades, he is too complacent, too self-satisfied and too arrogant to rethink his position in the light of new circumstances. He will enjoy the Tory leadership contest, because he always enjoys a good biff. But no one ought to regard him as a serious candidate.

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