Steve Richards: He may be the best man, but Mr Clarke is wrong to stand

'The election of Clarke would not heal the party's divisions over Europe. It would formalise them.'
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The decision by Ken Clarke to throw his hat in the Conservatives' increasingly crowded ring should, in theory, be a cause for celebration: At last here is someone who tells it straight, who will give Blair and Brown a run for their money, who with his casual, un-manufactured style could charm the Conservatives back to the middle ground of politics. What is more the big hitter is in with a chance this time. The Tory membership have a vote now. The members wanted him in 1997 but were disenfranchised under the old system. They might just go for him this time.

But Clarke's candidacy does not feel right to me and, more to the point, clearly did not feel altogether right to him. As far as such an exuberant figure can agonise, he has been agonising. He has agonised his way to the wrong decision.

If Clarke had not stood he would have remained the heroic uncrowned King, free to speak his mind, his words carrying much greater weight than the size of the Conservative Party that he represents. He has chosen, instead to face one of two possible scenarios. There is a risk that he is one of the defeated candidates in the first ballot of Conservative MPs, not even getting on the second ballot that goes to the party members.

The other scenario is that he might actually win. In which case he becomes the muted king, the leader of a Eurosceptic party, in which his overriding priority would be to unify the Conservatives rather than to advance his own views. Both these scenarios are grimmer than enjoying the reputation of someone who was above the party, who could not even stand for the leadership of a party that had moved away from him.

Clarke's own uncharacteristic doubts are revealed by the lateness of his entry. It is all very well him saying at his launch yesterday afternoon that the contest had proceeded with an "amazing suddenness", that candidates were in too much of a hurry to declare. Whatever Clarke may have thought, the reality is that the candidates and their supporters were in an amazing hurry. None of them heeded his wish to pause. In spite of this he chose to pause in Vietnam, flogging tobacco to the Third World. The pause and its nicotine- induced cause were not the behaviour of someone who was hungry for the job

Ah, but that's good old Ken, his supporters declare. He is so laid-back and that is part of his attraction.

But Mr Clarke is not as casual in his ambitions as that. When he really wants a job he can go for it with a single-minded ruthlessness. If you have any doubts about this, ask his old friend Norman Lamont. When Lamont was Chancellor, Clarke was everywhere in the media giving his views on the state of the economy, economic policy and occasionally admitting that the Government was "in a terrible hole". Presenters on the Today programme would often read an introduction along the line of "Unemployment is rising, the pound is falling...joining me now is the Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke". Lamont could not have been singing in his bath as he heard these early morning interviews. They were the most public examples of a bid for a Chancellor's job that there has ever been. Clarke wanted to be Chancellor and he went for it. There were no breaks in Vietnam then.

Over the leadership contest he has appeared endearingly unambitious because he is not sure of his ambitions. As he has constantly said he wants to be Prime Minister, but he says this in the same way Blair "wants" to be in the single currency. Neither of them have a clue how to reach their different aspirations. Clarke knows of no clear route to be Prime Minister. The Prime Minister knows of no clear route for joining the euro. Which brings us to another reason for concern about Mr Clarke's candidacy. As a backbencher he is the most forceful advocate for the euro in the Commons.

If he wins the leadership contest he will be much more compromised. There is a danger that his language will become as tortured and defensive as the words of Blair and Brown. Already it is possible to see the lights going out. At his launch yesterday, while reiterating his theoretical support for the euro Clarke chose to stress a series of negatives: "We can't join now because the pound is far too high...there may not be a referendum...it is not for me, but the Prime Minister to give the lead". Mr Clarke is turning himself almost into a passive spectator rather than the most persuasive participant in the debate.

Nor is it just a matter of the euro. Mr Clarke has grown up views on other matters relating to Europe. As he made clear yesterday he does not support the re-negotiation of the Nice Treaty, let alone the Rome Treaty. The prospect of a re-negotiation is what still gets some Conservative MPs going. They may have been humbled a little by the election defeat. Some of them may even be reconsidering where they place the European obsession in their list of priorities. So far none of them has announced a change of view on the substance of the issue.

The election of Clarke as leader would not heal the party's divisions over Europe. It would formalise them. Over time he would no doubt hope that he could persuade his colleagues by stealth to take a more pragmatic approach. Looking at his parliamentary colleagues he cannot hold out much hope.

Clarke remains the Denis Healey of his party. Healey was popular in the country and one of the few capable of landing the odd punch against the rampant Thatcher government. Clarke, in a way that is still underestimated, remains the most lethal opponent of Brown's economic policies, especially the nightmarishly complex tax reforms.

Often he prefaces his critique by the observation that he had often considered introducing the policies himself. He had rejected them on the ground that they were the least efficient way of assisting those they were designed to help. Oddly even these attacks may become more blunted now. They would be less potent because Clarke himself risks being diminished as a leader or as a failed candidate, in the same way Healey was never quite the same after his bruising battles with his party.

Of the five leadership candidates Clarke was much the most impressive at his launch yesterday, eschewing waffle and platitudes. In a way he is the Tony Blair of his party, reminding them of the need to make real changes to become electable again. But his party is nowhere near as malleable as Labour was when Blair stood for the leadership in 1994.

It would have been better for Clarke and better for British politics if he had kept well clear of this leadership contest.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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