Bruce Anderson: Ken Clarke may appeal to Middle England - but he is the wrong leader for the Tories

However attractive his personality, he has not had a new idea since the 1960s
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The Independent Online

Political observers are watching the skies. They hope to witness a unique event. It is widely assumed that Kenneth Clarke, bird-watcher, tobacco salesman and Euro-fanatic, is preparing to launch his third campaign for the Tory leadership, and why not? Why should the aged eagle not stretch his wings?

Political observers are watching the skies. They hope to witness a unique event. It is widely assumed that Kenneth Clarke, bird-watcher, tobacco salesman and Euro-fanatic, is preparing to launch his third campaign for the Tory leadership, and why not? Why should the aged eagle not stretch his wings?

There are good reasons why not, even though Mr Clarke has many qualities. Apart from John Prescott, who wants to bury it in bulldozers and concrete, almost everyone in politics is now obsessed by Middle Britain, that vast demographic plateau which could guarantee indefinite electoral success. From his jovial manner to his middle tummy, from his Hush Puppies to his Hamlet cigars, Ken Clarke is Middle Britain incarnate.

This has led to a widespread belief that he isthe answer to the Tories' problems. The less they understand the Tory party - Anthony Howard is a classic example - the more the commentators assume that Ken Clarke is the man to bring the Tories back to power. The more they assume that, the more they are wrong, for a number of reasons.

The first is that Mr Clarke is not what he seems. He could have modelled for Rowlandson, in a depiction of British resistance to Bonaparte. A tankard of ale at his elbow, and executing a joint of beef with a carving knife the size of a cavalry sword, the sturdy English yeoman bellows defiance at Boney and all the other frog-eating wretches on the wrong side of the Channel.

Yet this is misleading. Ken Clarke is the frog-eaters' fifth column. He may look like John Bull; he should be called Jacques Taureau. Since Ted Heath relapsed into solipsism and retreated into sullenness, no British politician has strived more energetically to betray Britain's interests: to deliver these islands, bound and stupefied, into European serfdom.

It could be argued that this is no longer relevant. As the poison has gone out of the European wound, the Conservative Party should now be able to tolerate a Federast leader.

That is a profoundly mistaken assessment. Even if the threat of federalism has receded, we are now confronted by the challenge of new thinking. After the French "no", the EU suffered an intellectual and moral implosion. Europe must be rethought, and the Tory party could play a crucial role. It should fall to British Tories to save Europe by their exertions.

Why should the acquis communautaire - the body of EU law to which all member states must subscribe - be regarded as sacrosanct, any more than the Common Agricultural Policy? What is wrong with variable geometry? Within a loose framework of free trade and political co-operation between free nations, Europe could create all manner of bilateral and multilateral arrangements.

This might also help to solve the Turkish question. There is no hope of Turkey being admitted to the EU as presently constituted. But there could be a European outer house, including Turkey, Ukraine, Morocco, Russia and Israel, which would accommodate nations who were not yet ready for full membership of the EU, but who deserve to be brought within its ambience.

There is a lot of work to be done. Unencumbered - and indeed stimulated - by the disintegration of federalism, the Tory party is well placed to be first away from the starting blocks. But that could not happen if Kenneth Clarke were the Tory leader. Ken Clarke is a British Jean-Claude Juncker. He is seriously fed up with the electorates of France and Holland. He believes that having come up with the wrong answer, they deserve only one response: an early opportunity to purge their contempt. He cannot understand how other European politicians can be wet enough to defer to their voters.

So if Ken Clarke were the Tory leader, there would be no fresh thinking on Europe, or on anything else. Ken does possess one supreme political asset: stubbornness. He could never be accused of bending his principles to the electorate's wishes, any more than he would ever be guilty of changing his ideas to accommodate new circumstances.

He had always been a Thatcher sceptic, who was never impressed by her economic views. He was not alone in that; throughout the 1980s, she regularly appointed such characters to ministerial posts. But there was one difference between Ken Clarke and the rest. Almost all the other long-stay residents of the Thatcher government modified their views in response to a changing political reality.

Chris Patten is a good example. Back in 1979, he believed in the inevitability of incomes policy. He would have regarded an inflation target of 5 per cent as unrealistic: any lower figure, as a fantasy. He would have assumed that the nationalised industries would continue to arrogate to themselves a significant proportion of the nation's wealth, and that it would be difficult if not impossible to bring the trade unions within the law. (In those days, I would have agreed with Mr Patten.)

Ten years later, Chris Patten had completely changed his views. (So, for what little it is worth, had I.) But Ken Clarke was different. There was an explanation for this. Mr Clarke never really believed in British domestic politics.

Though Ken always denies this, several people claim to have heard him say that he looked forward to the day when the Parliament at Westminster had the same powers as a German Land.

Apart from the range of testimony, there is a further reason for questioning Mr Clarke's memory. That state of affairs would be the logical conclusion of his views on Europe. He is a federalist. Like Jacques Delors, he had assumed that as the years passed, an increasing percentage of the crucial economic decisions would be taken in Brussels. So why waste much effort on the increasingly trivial details of British local government, within a European superstate?

The next Tory leader will have to take a crucial role in the rethinking of Europe. He will have to reassure the British electorate that it is possible to cut taxes and deliver high-quality public services. He will have to preserve the Anglo-Saxon model from the inroads of regulation and tax increases. In a much more understated fashion, he will have to be as bold as Margaret Thatcher was in 1979.

That is not Kenneth Clarke. However attractive his personality, he has not had a new idea since the 1960s. In a rapidly changing world, he offers old thinking and stale complacency. That is not the answer to the new questions.

It is to be hoped that Ken does run for the leadership. His roistering insouciance would make the whole spectacle more amusing. But his day has gone, just as his Europe has gone. He may be an exotic bird, to delight the political twitchers as he soars overhead. On the ground, however, he has no purchase on reality.

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