How to seduce a Kensington Tory

Oh yes, minister ... The raffish charm of Alan Clark has worked wonders on the Kensington and Chelsea ladies. Paul Vallely and Clare Garner admire the frisson between the maverick and the matriarchs
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So, when it comes down to it, it's back to basics. For all the talk about family values and doing battle with Blair on the high moral ground, what your average Tory activist wants, it turns out, is Alan Clark.

It's a jolly good wheeze, of course, to select for the safest Conservative seat in the land a man who sticks two fingers up at what most Tory MPs know they have to say in public, even if they think differently in private. "Only domestic servants," he once epigrammatised, "apologise for what they've said." It is an understandable sentiment. Were Alan Clark to begin to apologise he might never stop.

This was the man who once suggested that Ugandan Asians should be told, "You cannot come into this country because you are not white", and who later suggested that immigrants should be sent "back to Bongo Bongo land". This was the historian who publicly expressed his admiration for Hitler and called his Rottweiler, Eva Braun. This was the raffish character whose diary admitted that he once made a speech to Parliament when "not entirely sober". This was the minister who made the Labour feminists' lips curl with his wilful political incorrectness - he once read out to the Commons a European announcement on equal opportunities, and did so in a deliberately silly voice. This was the macho philanderer (and how!) who dismissed the idea of heterosexual Aids as a "fag conspiracy" and derided the Buckingham Palace establishment, which "as we know is dominated by homosexuals".

Colourful, or what? No wonder such an extravagant chap was bored at home, albeit in a castle in Kent, bitterly regretting his last-minute decision to retire from Parliament just before the 1992 general election. He had known even before he left politics that he had made a mistake, as one of his final diary entries shows:

"I am trying to steel myself to the great transition," he wrote with just under a year to go. "What are my objectives? Limited, I suppose, by comparison. Full and proper attention to my papers and to the heritage. A dilettante man of letters? A (old Etonian) guru? A more attentive husband? Freedom to travel at will and EARLY NIGHTS. The deferral of old age, I suppose. But this itself is rather wet and feeble, and invites Nemesis."

If the goddess of retribution and vengeance was tempted she did not strike, despite the rage of his former constituency party in Plymouth Sutton, which had to find a successor in double-quick time. Nor was the revenge of his vaunted various lovers ever forthcoming; rather the arrival of the preposterous Judge James Harkess from South Africa - accusing Clark of having seduced his wife and two daughters - induced more a sense of sniggering sympathy from the public, largely because the Harkess harridans were accompanied by the odious Max Clifford.

In any case, there was always the suspicion that the braggart Clark boasted of more than his trousers ever delivered. Anyone who asks a fellow pall- bearer at a funeral whether he had ever had sex in church surely gets his thrills more from violating others' sense of propriety than their nubile relatives.

Still it is always possible that it was the limited legover opportunities at Saltwood Castle which has driven the arrogant old lecher back to Westminster. There was definitely the sniff of sex in the air at the selection meeting in Kensington on Thursday evening. "A couple of quickies, if you'll excuse the pun," one of Clark's selection meeting questioners began, to seemly sniggers. And when a couple of the constituency stalwarts - ladies of a certain age, with vivid slashes of lipstick above their double-rows of pearls - were asked by a TV reporter why they would vote for Clark, one replied, with a smouldering excitement she was unable entirely to suppress: "He's so experienced."

In the interplay between power and vanity which governs such encounters, no doubt many of those who were flattered into voting for him hoped for the frisson of a flirtation, at the very least, or better still to feature in some snide aside in a future diary. (Never underestimate people's appetite for public abuse. Alan Ayckbourn was once horrified when he realised that his portrayal of a boring local councillor was so transparent that everyone in Scarborough had guessed who its model was - only to find that the victim was so honoured by the attention that his only concern was that he should be played by someone famous when the play transferred to the West End).

And vanity was certainly tickled on Thursday evening. Clark amused them: "I can't be any worse than the last one," he quipped about the previous recumbent, Sir Nicholas Scott who was de-selected after he was found by police slumped in the gutter during the Tory conference in Bournemouth. He flattered them: they are the people the country always turns to when it's in a jam. "They've got used to us. My one dread is that if something goes wrong and they have to turn to us again, it could be too late." He charmed them: "You are the flagship of the national union and if now you do choose me to help you in this task, it would create a debt and gratitude that would last all my life." He was one of them, making a revealing U- turn on fox hunting; though a vegetarian who spoke with feeling about "badgers, hedgehogs, foxes" he pledged that he would not allow his private feelings to goad him to vote in favour of a ban.

It could be, of course, that the highly educated Conservatives of Kensington are looking to their history. It was that great Tory prime minister Disraeli who countered suggestions that when Palmerston, aged 80, fathered a bastard this would ruin his electoral chances. More likely said Disraeli "he'll sweep the country". Perhaps they hope Clark, who is only 68, will perform in like manner.

More probably it is a sign that the Tory activists suspect that they have no chance of their party winning the election. Compare Clark with your average new Labour candidate - young, intelligent, decent and bland; these are clones set on government and therefore desperate not to give offence. Clark, by contrast, relishes giving it. It is part of the toff image he cultivates with such careful insouciance.

It is, of course, a great game. For all his gout aristocratique de deplaire, and though he was once the richest man in the House of Commons - with his flat in Mayfair, castle in Kent, 27,000 acre estate in northern Scotland, house in Switzerland and so forth - Clark is not a true aristo. Though his father was the famous art historian Kenneth Clark, "Lord Clark of Civilisation", his grandfather was in trade (in cotton thread). Still he has not allowed that to spoil his jeu d'esprit - this was the wag who once pretended that he thought the dinner-jacketed Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe, was a waiter and who put down Michael Heseltine with the remark that he was the kind of fellow who had to buy his own furniture.

Smiles all round then. Welcome back Alan. "He's an original," insisted John Major yesterday. "He'll bring a dash of colour. There's a very shrewd, clever, intelligent politician returning to the Commons and of course I welcome that." Of course. There was even warmth from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, William Waldegrave, who was criticised in the report of the Scott arms-to-Iraq inquiry precipitated by Mr Clark's part in prompting the collapse of the Matrix Churchill trial with his candour in the witness box. "I think he will add to the colour of politics nationally," said Mr Waldegrave. "Quite a lot of people will see it as rather a strength of the British system, that we can have such an amusing and interesting character back on the front line. I think a lot of people will welcome him back. I certainly do."

The curiosity is, given his political opinions, that most people will be pleased to see Alan Clark return to enliven the dull and worthy hypocrisy of our public life. His directness holds attractions beyond his gnarled sexuality (though that clearly has a vicarious potency - one colleague recalls a scene in the BBC newsroom when otherwise earnest, liberal young female producers did battle to be the one to accompany a reporter to interview Clark, and one suggested the selection should be settled with the question: "Who's got the cleanest knickers?")

But Clark also flirts with an integrity which seems all too rare in modern politics. He is, after all, the right-wing patriot who wrote a bitter attack on the generals of the British Expeditionary Force who drove men to needless deaths in the First World War. He is the high Tory who bans fox-hunting on his land. He is the minister who refused to lie in the witness box to protect the clandestine policy of his own government in the arms-to-Iraq affair. He is the Cold Warrior who admired the Russians while detesting his American allies for their "material corruption". It is in contradictions such as those that his real charm lies.

"My past is an open book. Everyone knows about it, the Conservative association knew about it and they still wanted me," he said yesterday. "Now it is up to the electorate to decide whether they want me as their MP." With a notional majority of almost 22,000 in Kensington and Chelsea, that is a rhetorical question. But desperate Tory constituencies elsewhere may lament the fact that they do not have an Alan Clark to put the same question there.