Leading article: Sorry Mr Clarke, but you have our support

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Labour won't get everything right. Some things it will get very wrong indeed. That is not cynicism but common sense. It may take weeks. It may take months. It may take years. For the sake of the country, the longer it takes, the better; but at some stage the new government will find itself slithering in the mire. A minister will be caught out; a policy error made embarrassingly plain; an abuse of power discovered. It is bound to happen because in this fallen world the population of saints is strictly subject to birth control. And when it happens, Her Majesty's Opposition will need to be on its mettle, tuned-up, ready to strike.

That is the stuff of parliamentary politics. The pungency and energy of the Opposition is one of the guarantees of civic freedom. We need ministers to feel nervous during Commons questioning. We need opposition figures of moral and political authority. All of which is to say, the sooner the Tories sort themselves out and choose a leader who can command the confidence of the country - a leader who can make this sad crew electable - the sooner British democracy will be armoured against the kind of upset made more likely by Labour's 419-seat power.

The Tory party leadership contest is thus no private matter. It is understandable for New Labour and its acolytes to wish the Tories the most extreme right- wing leader possible, and to hope further internal warfare continues that party's decline. But it is unpatriotic and against the spirit of democracy to think that way. Just as the gravest charge that can be brought against Labour during its worst period in the early Eighties was its failure effectively to oppose Thatcherism in full flood, largely because it was obsessed by its own internal affairs, so the Tories are in danger of neglecting their constitutional duty of keeping this new, enthusiastic and powerful government on the straight and narrow.

The sooner they make their choice the better. Yet before they measure the curves of the belles parading before them, they need to give some thought to what kind of party the Tories are to be in the early years of the next century - a formation of the mainstream, in tune with British people, or a fretting gang of ideologues out of touch and so likely to remain out of office. It is a matter, in part, of cutting the dogma quota, especially the mindless neo-liberalism that still seems to lodge in the belfries of the various Tory think-tanks.

Do they really believe that every jot of government expenditure above 25 per cent of GDP constitutes oppression and unfreedom? The Tory party has never, it is true, put a high price on intellectual consistency and rigorous argument; Thatcherism was a mixed doctrine and under John Major its dregs ran thick indeed. Most leadership candidates like a little bit of this (free markets) and a little bit of that (xenophobia, a close cousin of unfreedom). Thus a Michael Howard is all in favour of freedom to trade but not on concomitant freedom to move; he is against Big Government, except in its manifestation as HM Prison Service, when it is a case of the bigger the better.

Tory confusion is of course demonstrated nowhere as clearly as over Europe. Common money on the basis of Maastricht (a treaty negotiated by a Cabinet consisting of most of the contenders) represents the triumph of a neo- liberal approach to macro-economics. But most of the contenders hate common money for reasons that range from Germanophobia to stop-the-world- I-want-to-get-off nationalism.

Because he is not an intellectual extremist and because he is not anti- European, as well as for his well-known personal qualities - pugnacity, humour and enthusiastic membership of the human race - by far the best candidate for opposition leader is the former Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke. It would be idle to pretend he is consistent and whole in all his positions or that his track record is unblemished (look at what he walked away from at health and the Home Office). Yet to tot up the ways in which his position differs from that of the right radicals is to see a coherent shape for post-1997 Toryism. In Mr Clarke's world view a capitalist Britain participates enthusiastically in Europe, not for the sake of building castles in the air, but to secure practical benefit. In that Britain the victims of economic change deserve protection, hence the need to maintain a safety-net. There, too, most people rely on public provision of schooling and health. Under Kenneth Clarke Tory thinkers might be set free to explore new positions for the party on local government, Scotland, public service delivery, defence, parliamentary reform: it could be an exciting time.

So, if The Independent were a Tory MP, it is clear where its vote would be cast. What about the argument that he is too close to New Labour thinking? Well, first, we agree with that thinking on Europe and macro-economics. We would much prefer a Tory party that was close to the core of the British consensus as expressed on 1 May than one that became intellectually "interesting" but politically marginal. Second, the best parliamentary opposition will come from a Tory leader able to fight in detail across terrain he knows well and feels comfortable with - a leader who comes from the same world as the people in power, not another planet.

It may be that the worst service this newspaper can give Mr Clarke is to express our support. Having Michael Heseltine's backing is one thing. Ours is a bouquet he would probably refuse. But there is nothing cynical or tactical about it. We want him to win because he would best help the Tories to recover their position as a mainstream, relevant opposition, and a potential government. Perhaps the best endorsement is that Labour understands that too, and dearly hopes the shattered Tories go for "anyone but Ken".

Comments