Never mind the Nerd, vote for Old Rustbucket

Clarke may have been around for a while but his inclusive programme means any MP with a sense of reality must support him
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Ken Clarke is now the Tories' unity candidate. His extraordinary, once unthinkable, seizure of this mantle from William Hague happened even before John Redwood's sensational endorsement of him yesterday. It was made possible by one event: Hague's unforced error in warning that he would not accept as members of his Shadow Cabinet anyone who did not, like him, rule out the single currency for a decade. Redwood's backing dramatises what had already been true: that Clarke was prepared to have Tories of every shade of opinion in the Shadow Cabinet while Hague was not. While the terms of the Clarke programme were necessarily inclusive, those of Hague's were necessarily divisive.

Envisage, after the events of yesterday, life after a Hague victory. The Redwoodites would continue to harrass him on the single currency because they despise Hague's formulation: if you're against the single currency in principle then why only for a decade? The Clarkeites will not close off the option of joining before the decade is up. Neither Clarke nor Redwood are prepared to serve under Hague, any more than Iain Mcleod or Enoch Powell were under Alec Douglas Home in 1963. Even before the Redwood pact, the consequences of not voting for Clarke as leader, at least for those MPs with a lingering sense of reality, had begun to look direr than the consequences of doing so. How much more dire now.

For, as some of Hague's supporters must now be reflecting, Ken Clarke still has the potential to be a brooding and dangerous presence in the darkness outside the Shadow Cabinet to which Hague's doctrinal rigidity would consign him. If, as is looking increasingly possible, the Government decides to sanction proportional representation for the European elections in 1999, the temptation for pro-European Tories to test the water for separation by standing on a different platform from the leadership will prove almost irresistible. The prospect of wholesale defections has doubtless been exaggerated by Labour for their own, destabilising, purposes. The possibility that the party under William Hague would sleepwalk towards schism and collective self-destruction isn't an exaggeration at all.

It's true that a Clarke victory doesn't of itself guarantee a stable Tory party. One right-winger, complaining before yesterday's pact about the choice between a "nerd in short trousers" and a "Heathite rustbucket", but intending to vote for the rustbucket, said that he was doing so not because Clarke was the strongest leader but because he would be the most vulnerable, and might be successfully challenged as early as November 1998. But this trouble-making scenario omits an important variable: the party in the country. If, under Clarke, the party is given a long overdue vote in leadership contests then Clarke's leadership could be rather more secure than the detabilisers hope. The constituency chairmen back Clarke already; given all their past record of loyalty to the incumbent, that support will harden like clay in the sun once he is leader.

But there is another factor, to do with the real world into which Clarke has now lured his new Shadow Chancellor designate, and which was embodied in the unthreatening Amsterdam treaty unveiled in the Commons by Tony Blair yesterday. The new Prime Minister may just be changing the terms of trade on Europe. Compared with the extravagantly integrationist hopes of the Germans and the Benelux countries just a few months ago, the Inter- governmental Conference has had a modest, pragmatic outcome, in which Blair, even allowing for a little post-summit euphoria in his circle, appears to have played a genuinely influential role. He did it by all accounts by being co-operatively communautaire - using his lawyer's mind to redraft texts, for example - when it didn't hurt British objectives, as well as by showing a Thatcherite stubbornness when it was necessary. And it isn't, as John Major found yesterday, easy to kick up a storm about the use of qualified majority voting over research and development or anti-fraud measures. Even on defence, the one issue which Major made most of yesterday, Blair doesn't seem to have given much of significance. He insisted that the primary importance of Nato to its European Union members was written into the text; and the vague reference to the possibility that the Western European Union might sometime in the distant future be "integrated" into the EU isn't much different from the idea of the WEU as a potential defence "component" of the EU envisaged in the Maastricht treaty signed by John Major.

The point of all this is first that it's painfully obvious Blair isn't the Euro-patsy some of Hague's allies, such as Michael Howard and Peter Lilley, wanted to paint him. And second that public opinion may actually start to reflect the idea that making deals can work as well as stopping them. In that event, the Clarke-Redwood pact may be one for the times, recognising, as it does, that you can't build a political programme exclusively on the empty proposition that Blair is determined to sell out British sovereignty whenever he can. Hague has talked bravely during the campaign of "repatriating" the powers which he assumes fondly Blair will give away. The Clarke-Redwood text emphasises, in terms that Blair wouldn't disagree with, the need for a liberal Europe of flexible markets, and that both men agree on everything except the single currency. On which, if it came to it, a Tory Cabinet or shadow Cabinet would be allowed to divide as Harold Wilson's did in 1975. Is it even just possible that some of the poison of Europe is at last about to seep out of the British body politic?

Not, of course, if Hague wins tonight. One of the problems is that many Tory MPs think that this is as small as their party in the Commons can get. Normally in a leadership contest there are enough MPs in threatened marginals to think about the voters when they make their choice. Having been hammered in the election most Tory MPs think they are now in safe seats. The irony is that the one way in which they could be reduced still further is to vote for Hague and a splintered party. Voting for Clarke and Redwood may not be a sufficient condition of saving the Tory party but it is certainly a necessary one.