Political Commentry: Clarke may excite the Two Ferrets

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SIR Bernard Ingham, when he worked for Margaret Thatcher, was much given to saying, as he sarcastically dismissed some topic preoccupying the press, the intelligentsia or the liberal establishment, that 'they aren't talking about it in the Two Ferrets at Hebden Bridge'. There were two rather graphic reminders of this observation last week.

The first was that as the bugging, or alleged bugging, of the Royal Family continued to dominate the headlines, the issue filling the in-trays of Tory MPs, and preoccupying many of them to the exclusion of all others, scarcely made the newspapers at all. Certainly, the dinner tables of NW1 do not resound to chatter about the future of rural sub-post offices. Yet MPs have been receiving thousands of letters protesting against an experiment to encourage - some would say put pressure on - benefit claimants, including pensioners, to save the public purse some pounds 500m a year by having their payments made directly into their bank accounts rather than by collecting them over the counter.

Peter Lilley's experiment takes little account of the social role played by country post offices, which will not help his case in the Cabinet reshuffle that a growing number of Tory MPs and ministers now confidently expect. The scheme is likely to become the subject of another government U- turn, and the fuss has handsomely contributed to the anxiety rife on the backbenches over the results of the Newbury by-election and county council elections.

The second was the expertly populist way in which Kenneth Clarke turned the bugging issue on its head - 'I don't investigate newspaper stories about B-52s landing on the Moon' - by springing a real surprise on law and order, an issue which is undeniably worrying the voters. Here you are, he was in effect telling those pressing him to investigate the bugging (including Tony Blair, his Labour shadow), chattering about fripperies, and here am I dealing with 'extremely important matters' which worry ordinary chaps in the Two Ferrets at Hebden Bridge.

It has been Mr Clarke's week. By announcing that he would be able to repeal the reviled sections of the 1991 Criminal Justice Act this summer brought more cheer to his own side than they had dared think possible after Newbury. The law and order card - which will be played to the hilt in the next parliamentary session - is not without its risks. Mr Blair's calm reasonableness and the chord he has struck on crime frightens a Tory party used to believing Labour cannot win on the issue. Moreover, it raises the question of what the Tories have been doing about crime in the past 14 years. All that could be safely forgotten on Thursday as backbenchers joyously watched Mr Clarke turn the classic trick of making a political opportunity out of a weak point.

In a Cabinet with more than its fair share of feline performers, Mr Clarke is the least feline. Ursine perhaps, occasionally canine, but definitely not feline. He has a well-judged gallantry, lending himself occasionally to less fortunate colleagues as a sort of human shield - for example, in his remarkable declaration after Black Wednesday that if his old Cambridge friend Norman Lamont resigned he would do so too; or in his decision to make a speech supporting John Patten in his travails over testing precisely at the moment that the rest of his colleagues scrambled for cover. Earlier, and perhaps more appropriately than some of his colleagues, he did the fashionable thing of citing Iain Macleod as his political hero, telling me in November 1989 that Macleod was 'an extremely enlightened liberal man, but he was also an extremely partisan, aggressive and rather activist politician'.

He also has a candour that prompted him to joke to John Major's biographer, Bruce Anderson, that he voted for Douglas Hurd in the 1990 leadership election partly because 'young cardinals vote for old popes'. That same candour was evident when he said in a post-Newbury interview on the BBC's The World This Weekend last Sunday that 'we have to decide how we are going to get out of this dreadful hole'

The phrase made headlines and, according to one inside account, Downing Street was slightly irritated by it.

But No 10 did not worry about, may not even have noticed, his reply to a question about whether Mr Major would lead the party into the next election: 'I think he will lead us into the next election. What we have to do when we go into the next election, is learn the lesson of Newbury . . .'

I do not suggest for a moment this was intended to sound tentative. The emphasis was on the 'will' rather than the 'think'. He had, after all, already said that a challenge to Mr Major's leadership in the autumn 'would help to restore John's authority' because it would get 'completely minimal support'. It's just that he did not say: 'Look mate, the chances of John Major not leading us into the election and winning it are about the same as finding B-52s on the Moon'. or some such Clarkeism.

But Mr Clarke's - certainly unconscious - choice of words merely reflects the realities as they are perceived across the party. Do not get over-excited about the prospect of a 'stalking horse' this autumn. It cannot be ruled out, and although some ministers disagree with Mr Clarke's assessment of its impact, he may well be right that it would actually help Mr Major.

On present showing, the most dangerous moment comes not in 1993, but in 1994. So fevered was the mood in the Tory party up until Mr Clarke's star turn on Thursday that you had to look to some of Labour's gloomier figures for a rational view of the Tories' future. Asked whether the Government was not in extreme disarray, one senior Shadow Cabinet member - with absolutely no interest in remaining in opposition - said: 'Oh I don't know. The economy will recover and we'll probably find something to tear ourselves apart about.'

If his prognosis is right, particularly on the economy, Mr Major's position could be greatly strengthened by then. But if the Tory showing in next year's European election is as poor as it was in 1989, then it could turn the heat on the Prime Minister as it did then for Mrs Thatcher.

And if that happens, this week has done nothing but strengthen the possibility of Mr Clarke as successor. If Norman Lamont is moved from the Treasury in a reshuffle, which a minority of politicians believe could come as early as the beginning of next month, Mr Clarke may well not get the job. The view in the Home Office is that he will have to stay to take through the weighty legislative programme he has for next year.

Both John MacGregor and Michael Howard are looking like plausible alternatives, and one possibility is that Mr Major might promise Mr Clarke the Foreign Office when Mr Hurd leaves. But none of that would necessarily weaken Mr Clarke's position. In every Cabinet there are one or two figures who start to enjoy a position which is almost independent of the Prime Minister who appointed them. Nigel Lawson, perhaps uniquely, was in that category in the Thatcher era. Mr Hurd has long had it. Mr Heseltine could yet recover it. Roy Jenkins had it under Harold Wilson. It is an exclusive club, and the signs are that Mr Clarke has now joined it.