Until my dying day, I shall remember meeting an elderly Conservative lady in the West Country who told me that she had voted for my excellent colleague Iain Duncan Smith as leader because he served in the army and was well dressed. He did and he is, but neither seems the most compelling reason to vote for a political leader. Surely, this time, Conservatives should focus single-mindedly on one question. Which candidate has the best chance of taking the Conservative Party back into office?
Polls have consistently shown that Ken Clarke is the most popular Tory in the country. I have lost count of the number of people on the doorsteps who have told me that they would vote Conservative if Ken were leader.
It is therefore good news that he is contemplating what would be his third bid for the Conservative leadership. Many MPs would surely welcome the chance to vote for the most impressive beast in the Tory jungle.
When Michael Portillo was defeated in the Tory leadership contest in 2001, I backed Iain Duncan Smith, as did 61 per cent of our party members. In retrospect, much as I like and greatly respect Iain, I believe that we made a mistake. Labour was let off the hook. If the party now restores the right of MPs to choose the leader, Ken stands a good chance of winning.
Of all the possible candidates, he is easily the best. His philosophy of support for enterprise with a strong welfare state chimes with the instincts of the British people. Some of the aspiring leaders recognise that the Tory party has to appeal to the centre ground which Tony Blair has effectively colonised. Most voters dislike extremes and ordinarily respond to someone who avoids them. Many of us, myself included, are recent converts to the cause of undogmatic, non-ideological, middle-ground politics. Not so Ken. He has epitomised centrist Toryism for 30 years.
In Cabinet, he combined a passionate commitment to public services with a hard-headed realism about how they should work. He stood up to vested interests, be they blue-collar unions trying to browbeat the government into coughing up taxpayers' money for unaffordable pay rises or professional bodies fighting Luddite battles to maintain outdated privileges.
In wooing floating voters, the Conservatives will certainly adopt different policies, but they can also reap dividends from presenting a different approach. In 2009, we will probably face Gordon Brown. He is formidable. He knows his brief backwards. He has every soundbite well honed. He is the political equivalent of an express train which you treat with respect but do not wish to meet head on. Ken is different. A natural communicator who tells it as he sees it, his style is refreshingly unspun. Both at the despatch box and on the media, he makes his arguments in terms that engage people. He is warm and human. A lawyer who does not sound like one. Critics will claim that he is too pro-European, too old and too tarred with the brush of previous Conservative governments. None of these objections strikes me as compelling.
Just as Harold Wilson allowed his cabinet to campaign on either side in the 1975 plebiscite, so Ken could grant Conservative MPs a free vote on the constitution if it has not already been buried in France. To those who call this a cop-out, I say that it simply recognises that there are different opinions on Europe in the major parties and among their voters. In any event, Europe does not obsess most voters and the notion that it should determine who leads the Conservative Party is absurd.
Let us knock the "age" argument on its head. Michael Howard has made a personal decision that he will be too old to lead the Conservative Party into the next election. Others can make theirs. As Ken has said, you are as old as you feel. Many leaders in politics and business including Nelson Mandela, Jacques Chirac, Rupert Murdoch and Bernie Ecclestone have been at the height of their powers in their 60s or 70s. To reject someone blessed with vast experience and great energy so arbitrarily would be short-sighted.
Membership of the Thatcher and Major governments has been an albatross around the necks of most ex-ministers. It is a tribute both to the record and the personality of Ken Clarke that his past is usually viewed as a recommendation, not a handicap.
Some Westminster insiders grumble that Ken is not a moderniser. They are wrong. Sure enough, Ken is not inclined to shout the mantra "modernise or die" from every available rooftop. He did not discover the need for modernisation in the early hours of 6 May. Rather, a belief in the need to adapt, be forward looking and appeal to the rich tapestry that makes up modern Britain is the essence of the man. As others have suggested, modernisation is not about age or dress, but about conviction and outlook. In this sense, which is what matters, Ken is the ultimate Tory moderniser. If he can bring himself to have a last throw of the dice, it could be third time lucky for him, the party and the country.
The author is the former shadow International Development Secretary
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