The last time Kenneth Clarke aligned himself with such an unlikely partner it was with John Redwood, his running mate in the campaign for the Conservative leadership in 1997. The rumbustious pragmatist has swallowed his pro-European principles before, then, and we should not be too surprised by his weekend endorsement of Iain Duncan Smith, his victorious rival in the most recent leadership election.
What is more surprising is that – leaving aside the issue of Europe, and Mr Duncan Smith certainly has – Mr Clarke is right. Mr Duncan Smith's hostility to Britain's adoption of the euro is an insuperable obstacle to the Conservative party's return to the centre ground of political life. But, that apart, the new Conservative leader has made a welcome start.
Mr Clarke singled out Mr Duncan Smith's speech to the party's spring conference in Harrogate, with its emphasis on a concern for the vulnerable and the less well off, for particular praise. He was too polite to draw attention to the contrast with William Hague's speech to the same audience this time last year. The new leader's instincts may lie on the right of his party, yet there has been, under him, none of the ugly xenophobia or the vindictiveness about crime that characterised the last two desperate years of Mr Hague's leadership.
While many of Mr Duncan Smith's front-bench team come across as winsomely green and weak on specifics, they do not present the harsh, uncaring image of their predecessors. And the leader himself has encouraged just enough free thinking about the delivery of public services – the central issue of politics today – to keep the Government from complacency. Indeed, on the NHS, it is only the nostalgia of 1948 and the ingrained perception of Tory party antipathy towards the very idea of a public health service, reinforced by Thatcherism, which allows Labour such an easy ride.
Meanwhile, Mr Duncan Smith's proposals for a directly elected House of Lords put the so-called people's party to shame.
Mr Clarke's generous comments might be interpreted in some cynical quarters as a subtle reminder of how much better a position the Tory party might be in had he been elected leader last September. That is interesting but irrelevant; what matters is that Mr Duncan Smith has made a better start than the admittedly low expectations of him. British democracy is the healthier for it.Reuse content