Geoffrey Wheatcroft: Mr Clarke and a matter of self-interest

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The Independent Online

Despite a suspiciously emphatic story in The Daily Telegraph, Clarke looks the one man who might beat David Davis, for he has that broader appeal outside the ranks of his own party faithful without which, as his early hero Iain Macleod said more than 40 years ago, general elections cannot be won.

He has been accused of opportunistically playing down his enthusiasm for Europe. But the truth is that events have decided that for him. It is certainly no more cynical for Ken Clarke to say, correctly, that joining the euro is now a prospect so remote as to be irrelevant than for Tony Blair to forget his own commitment ("Even if the French voted no, we would have a referendum. That is a government promise"). But whatever Clarke's ability and popularity may be, he is a problematic figure in another way. In office he has a formidable record for doing the state some service. Out of office he has done himself some service, in a way that might make one wonder whether we can mock earlier generations of politicians who enriched themselves.

Until his arrival, the most serious challenger to Davis appeared to be David Cameron. But a spate of stories (planted by whom?) about his directorship of a company that owns late-night bars has implied a conflict of interest over the contentious issue of round-the-clock licensing.

In Clarke's case, there is not quite a legislative conflict of interest. And yet his long-standing connection with the tobacco industry has displeased people on all sides of the party. However hard the times, should a former health secretary really be reduced to selling cigarettes to the Vietnamese? Four years ago, as a newly elected MP, Boris Johnson supported Clarke for the leadership despite differences on Europe, breezily dismissing this difficulty with the words, "Ken Clarke can go and sell tobacco to the Vietnamese. Tobacco is legally sold in this country; it is legally sold in Vietnam", as though there were a difference between the actually illegal and the merely reprehensible.

Now Clarke has, in effect, conceded the point: he has let it be known that he will sever his business links, including his deputy chairmanship of British American Tobacco, if he stands for the leadership, though the implication is that he may resume them if someone else wins.

In theory at least, we now have much higher standards in public life. Looking back presents some remarkable spectacles: it's not so much the outright crooks who have always flitted in and out of Parliament that astonish, it is the great prime ministers, too.

In 1882 Gladstone's government bombarded Alexandria and made Egypt a British protectorate. This was shortly after the prime minister had bought a very large quantity of Egyptian Tribute loan stock, which increased by nearly a third in value following the annexation: on the face of it, "a clear case of improper financial interest", as Roy Jenkins says in his biography. Salisbury invested heavily in businesses whose fortunes were plainly affected by his government's policy. Politicians' shareholdings were a private matter, and cabinet ministers were not required to give updirectorships until 1892. Salisbury reversed this prohibition, which became permanent only after his death.

And Churchill had the gaudiest financial life of all, which would not survive media scrutiny now. He earned a lot but he spent even more and was often in dire straits. He was given a helping hand by millionaires such as Sir Abe Bailey, Bernard Baruch and Sir Henry Strakosch who took over his shares at their original value when Churchill lost a small fortune on the US stock market in 1938. And Churchill was paid such breathtaking sums by the Daily Mail - equivalent now to £10,000 or more a column - as to suggest a disturbingly dependent relationship with Viscount Rothermere.

Although no politician would behave like Gladstone, Salisbury or Churchill today, we have a different kind of problem. Those three would have been outstanding personalities even if they had never sat in parliament; Gladstone and Salisbury were rich men who didn't need political careers to grow richer, while Churchill would always have earned a healthy living as a writer. Today we see another ominous tendency. Politicians who would be nonentities if they had never entered parliament (and some remain so) turn their status at Westminster to financial advantage. Tory backbenchers compete to collect the most "consultancies", though the businesses concerned would not be dishing out their dosh to anyone who wasn't an MP. And no sooner do some ministers lose office than they are on the prowl for directorships.

Being a Member of Parliament, as opposed to a minister, was not formerly seen as a full-time job, and many MPs had other trades, most likely at the Bar, in business or in journalism. But that was a quite different matter, as the story of H H Asquith, a barrister, illustrates. After a brilliant early legal and parliamentary career, he was appointed Home Secretary at 39 with no previous ministerial experience. When the Liberal government fell three years later he returned to the law. In 1898, he turned down the Liberal leadership, being, as his son Raymond said, "a poor man and dependent on his practice at the Bar". (The Leader of the Opposition drew no salary for another 40 years.) By contrast, although Clarke and Howard are both QCs, neither of them went back to legal practice after they had emptied their ministers' red boxes for the last time, but turned their attention to commercial life. And yet, leaving aside the propriety of a former health secretary becoming a cigarette salesman, would Clarke have been so sought after for that role had he not once sat in the Cabinet? Eight years ago the Tories were thrashed at the election partly because Labour had successfully, if not always fairly, tarred them with the brush marked "sleaze". Since then we have had ample opportunity for disillusionment with the Blair regime, but the Tories remain unelectable. Could that be in part because we still think that even the brightest and best of them have too sharp an eye for the main chance?

Geoffrey Wheatcroft's latest book, 'The Strange Death of Tory England', is published in paperback by Penguin next month

Alan Watkins is away