Ken may not be popular but they all need him lying on Ken

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The Independent Online
Only a decade ago, shortly after he had joined the Cabinet as employment spokesman in the Commons, Mr Kenneth Clarke was the most popular minister with younger Conservative MPs. That was at the high tide of Thatcherism, when the party possessed more self-confidence than it does today. The esteem in which Mr Clarke was held was attested by several opinion polls. The MPs admired - or said they admired - him for his debating skills, his common sense and his readiness to listen to opposing arguments.

He was not seen as the next leader of the party. That position, it was thought at the time, would be contested by Mr Michael Heseltine, Mr Douglas Hurd and Sir (as he then was) Geoffrey Howe. Mr John Major, who was not even in the Cabinet then, was nowhere in the betting. Mr Clarke was thought of as the most likely politician to succeed Mr Heseltine, Mr Hurd or Sir Geoffrey.

But whereas Labour always choose a predictable leader, the Conservatives go to great trouble not to do so. Even Mr Michael Foot was predictable (I myself backed him at 14-1) in a way in which Lord Home, Lady Thatcher and Mr Major were not. Indeed, Mr Clarke has done remarkably well, or been very lucky, to become Chancellor of the Exchequer.

This was the post which three of his past equivalents in the Conservative Party also held: in chronological order, R A Butler, Reginald Maudling and Iain Macleod. They were, to use that favourite English bureaucratic phrase, "more able" than the people just listed who became Prime Minister instead. "Able to do what?" is the question I feel like asking when civil servants and persons of that kind talk in this way. But in this connection I am clear what is meant: they all possessed a creative political intelligence allied to a capacity for administration. And they all stood to the left of the politicians who jumped their claims.

Today the signs are that Mr Clarke has become a member of this distinguished group, whom he so much resembles in several respects. Though he lacks Butler's gift for the feline phrase - or, to put it the other way round, is admirably straightforward where Butler was not - his political thinking is similar to Rab's. Like both Macleod and Maudling, he possesses a contempt for the health police and their injunctions which, in any case, vary from year to year or even from month to month. And, like Maudling, he sometimes presents a dishevelled appearance.

It was extraordinary that, in their obituaries of Alger Hiss, several newspapers sought to discredit his principal hostile witness, Whittaker Chambers, by describing his as "overweight" and "rumpled". In my experience of this world, people who look like Chambers are more trustworthy than people who look like Hiss. Maudling, admittedly, does present an objection to this thesis. In his latter years he was not greatly attached to the truth, not as far as his business dealings were concerned, at any rate. I am content to echo the Nonconformist preacher who said: "And here, my friends, I see a difficulty in our path. Let us look it boldly in the eye, and pass on our way."

Certainly Maudling was not, at an earlier period of his life, defrauded of the leadership. He lost fair and square to Sir Edward Heath in 1965, though he could have insisted, as he did not, on a second ballot. Macleod's supporters did not think it worth entering him for the race at all, so low was his support. And though Butler had the backing of a majority of the Cabinet in 1963 (as he had not in 1957, when Harold Macmillan had succeeded Anthony Eden), it remains doubtful whether he enjoyed the support of most Tory MPs. This was two years before the Conservatives introduced their system of election, so we cannot know for sure. But, as the then Chairman of the 1922 Committee, Major John Morrison, warned him at the time: "The chaps won't have you."

Today it is Mr Clarke who is in trouble with the chaps. So is Mr Major. Major Morrison's less formidable and almost certainly less rich successor Sir Marcus Fox is off to see the Prime Minister to demand a proper Commons debate on our membership of a single European currency. Or, if Sir Marcus is too polite or timorous to demand it, he will convey the intelligence that other people are doing so.

Mr Major is reported to be in fighting mood. He has, it seems, no inclincation to give in. Well, we have heard that one before, on numerous occasions over the last six years. Having proclaimed defiance (or, usually, having arranged to have it proclaimed on his behalf), Mr Major then gives in. His surrender is subsequently hailed, not least by himself, as a notable victory for moderation and good sense. I predict a debate on a single currency before Christmas.

One cannot help feeling that neither Mr Clarke nor Mr Major has been specially adroit. There was the White Paper on Europe. The Euro-phobes chose to regard this as a crucial test of political muscle. Quite why goodness knows, because any civil servant worth his membership of the Reform Club can produce a White Paper of excruciating tedium on any subject under the sun in a couple of days. That is what happened on this occasion. We are none the wiser about Europe, not even better informed. Mr Major and Mr Clarke, who act together in these matters, could simply have acceded to the Europhobes' pointless demand instead of engaging in a fight which they proceeded to lose.

Then there was the promise of a referendum. This took the chair from under the Europhobes - as it does, incidentally, from under Sir James Goldsmith as well. That Labour has now reluctantly adopted it should properly be a cause of governmental congratulation rather than of gloom. Yet Mr Clarke, like Mr Gordon Brown, opposed the promise, even though it would be to the advantage of those of the same persuasion as themselves on matters European. For the choice would be put to the people after the decision to join had been made.

No, Mr Clarke is not very popular with the chaps, even though (as Sir Julian Critchley never tires of reminding us) they are very different from the chaps of Major Morrison's day. And yet, paradoxically, they rely on Mr Clarke to secure their seats at the election. He is their last hope. There is no one else: not Mr Major or even Mr Heseltine and certainly not Mr Malcolm Rifkind. It all depends on our Ken and his Budget in two days' time.

If the Tories win, Mr Clarke will receive the credit, as Lord Lawson did after 1987, when everything started to go wrong. At that time Lady Thatcher, according to his account, saw him as a rival and accordingly decided to do him down. The relationship between Mr Major and Mr Clarke is different. Mr Major would be more likely to retire gracefully with the recommendation that Mr Clarke should be his successor. In the moment of victory the single currency would be forgotten. But first of all there has to be a victory.