Michael Brown: Is Ken Clarke enjoying one last tease?

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The Independent Online

"But can Ken be fagged?" That is the question the Conservatives are asking of its big-cigar smoking beast in the Tory jungle as he teases them and the media about his leadership intentions. It is the most amusing irony that Kenneth Clarke, that most Europhile of Tories, should be cheering on the results of the French and Dutch referendums even more loudly than Bill Cash, the arch Tory Eurosceptic.

"But can Ken be fagged?" That is the question the Conservatives are asking of its big-cigar smoking beast in the Tory jungle as he teases them and the media about his leadership intentions. It is the most amusing irony that Kenneth Clarke, that most Europhile of Tories, should be cheering on the results of the French and Dutch referendums even more loudly than Bill Cash, the arch Tory Eurosceptic.

The theory now circulating is that both the European constitution and British entry into the single currency are now firmly off the domestic political agenda. At a stroke, so this theory goes, the past 15 years of schism within the Tory party over Europe enables Mr Clarke to re-enter the leadership stakes with his views on Europe no longer a bar to leading his party.

It is an attractive proposition. But for his differences with the rest of his party, Mr Clarke could well have been leader either in 1997 or in 2001. On the first ballot among Tory MPs, when John Major resigned, he actually came top. And he led in the final ballot in 2001 before facing Iain Duncan Smith in the run-off ballot of party members.

There is no doubt that Mr Clarke remains the most well known Tory backbencher - apart from Boris Johnson - and still has plenty of puff, judging from his continued enjoyment of cheroots, in him. While Michael Howard may feel that, at 64, he is too old to fight the next election, Mr Clarke - one year older - obviously feels that by the age of 69, when the next election takes place in 2009 or 2010, he will be able to present a certain Churchillian comparison to the electors.

On the age question, there should be absolutely no bar to Mr Clarke's possible candidacy. Ageism should have no more place in politics than sexism or racism. Mr Blair may be a fitness fanatic, but he seems to end up with more heart and back trouble than Ken Clarke, who smokes, drinks and eats his way through several square meals a day. A Prime Minister Clarke would be physically tougher and stronger in his seventies than Prime Minister Blair has been in his early fifties.

Mr Clarke would undoubtedly be first rate at the rough and tumble at the dispatch box. If Gordon Brown takes over later in this parliament as Prime Minister, the two old sparring partners would be back. But that was the theory which originally commended Michael Howard's candidacy against Tony Blair in 2003. In the end Howard's past proved to be an impediment against Blair, and I fear the same might be the case in a staging of the Clarke and Brown show.

Mr Clarke has already shown his ability to appeal to a sizeable chunk of the parliamentary party. This time, though, one in four of the Tory MPs is new. They are anxious to look to the future and would not necessarily provide Mr Clarke with the bulk of their support. He can still probably rely on the dwindling band of senior traditional "one nation" Tories such as John Gummer (yes - he's still there), Michael Jack, Sir George Young, Michael Mates and possibly Ian Taylor.

Whether Mr Clarke would be prepared to engage with the reforms currently being debated within the Tory party about the need to reflect modern Britain is less certain.

In 2002, when Clause 28 was still wracking the party, he made it clear - actually at a party conference Independent rally - that he could not understand what all the fuss was about. Mr Clarke is no homophobe and is a genuine liberal. But this is where the age thing does become a problem. He is set in his ways and is not always aware of quite how modern Britain is changing.

But the biggest question mark over a Clarke leadership would still be over Europe. On this heady morning, the Europhobes are celebrating the death of a federal Europe, but there will still be battles ahead. By the time of the next election the Euro-fudges will be back on the British political table. Indeed they will probably occupy the energies of both main party leaders, whoever they are, for the next four years.

There is little doubt that the next Tory leader will have to command a majority of Tory MPs. That means that the wider party membership might not necessarily get the leader of its choice. Were Mr Clarke to win in Parliament he would face - at least initially - an uphill struggle among the wider party.

Yesterday's YouGov poll of Tory members showed 54 per cent for David Davis, 30 per cent for David Cameron, 24 per cent for Liam Fox and 19 per cent for Mr Clarke. In the end, I have a hunch that Ken is simply enjoying one last tease. But then again, Tory leadership contests are the biggest political brainteasers of them all.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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