Prince Rupert at a dangerous gallop heady

Kenneth Clarke can handle unpopularity. But will it harm his prospects? Donald Macintyre profiles a Chancellor in a spot of bother
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Last weekend, a backbench Tory who has been a close friend of Kenneth Clarke since the early 1970s telephoned the Chancellor. In the backwash of Clarke's robustly pro-European speech the previous Thursday night, the Thatcherite wing of the party, spearheaded by Michael Portillo, was privately and publicly sniping at Clarke; would it help, the backbencher asked, if some of his mates "weighed in on your behalf"? "No thanks," came back the cheerful reply from the Chancellor, "I can look after myself."

The answer is entirely in character. One of the attractions of Kenneth Clarke is that what you see is what you get. He's a jazz fan - having progressed from Acker Bilk to Gerry Mulligan and Charlie Parker in his teens - because he loves it; he watches alternately Nottingham Forest and Notts County on most Saturdays, not because of some populist affectation, but because he has done so since childhood. He has had a long and happy marriage to a woman of high intelligence and notably liberal views. And the nearest thing he has done to putting himself in the hands of image-makers was to "smarten himself up" on the order of Margaret Thatcher during the 1987 General Election.

And Clarke is not, to put it mildly, the sort of politician who normally looks to others for protection. Indeed, the reverse is true, as his predecessor Norman Lamont knows better than most. In the grim days after Black Wednesday, Clarke, then Home Secretary, said of Lamont: "If he resigns, I'll go too". It is that kind of gallantry which recently made one senior colleague describe him as a "Prince Rupert" of modern politics. "It is one of his strengths and his weakness. He charges off at the head of the cavalry so fast that sometimes he forgets to wait for the infantry."

Yesterday, Lamont repaid the debt with a ferocious and quite personal attack on the arguments Clarke used in his Thursday speech to suggest that membership of the single currency did not have to mean the end of British nationhood as we know it. And it is Lamont rather than Clarke who looks as if he is, at present at least, on the winning side in the argument convulsing the Tory party.

It is tempting, but not quite right, to see this week's hints of a bust- up between the Chancellor and the Prime Minister as a replay of the Lawson- Thatcher tensions of 1989. Certainly, Clarke and Major are not, in the words of one senior ex-minister who knows them both very well, "bosom chums. If they had been, Clarke and not Lamont would have been made Chancellor in 1990. And it would have been a lot better if he had been."

Clarke voted for Douglas Hurd in the 1990 Tory leadership contest, saying memorably of the patrician grouping surrounding the Foreign Secretary that they had to have at least "one peasant, if only to pour the tea", and even more memorably after the contest that Douglas Hurd should not have tried to give ground to Major's calculated appeal to the "classless society". Clarke told a colleague a few months later: "Douglas should have said: `I'm a toff. But I'm a toff with a social conscience.' Which he is."

Some of the best insights into Clarke's attitude to Major come in an interview he gave to Penny Junor for her fulsome, but interesting biography of the Prime Minister. Clarke told Junor that in the 1989 ambulancemen's dispute - probably his darkest hour - Major was "unflappably, unshakeably supportive" at a time when others, notably the then party chairman, Kenneth Baker, fell away.

Yet in the same biography, Clarke made two prophetic points. Recalling the grisly aftermath to Black Wednesday, he said: "If you fall off [the bicycle], particularly if you are surrounded by people who are laughing at you, it's doubly important you get back and pedal again... Otherwise you lose the self-confidence to go out and face the enemy. John Major hesitated a bit."

The second point was that one of John Major's skills "is that everybody thinks he agrees with them. It's not because he says one thing to one person and another to another. It's the way he expresses his views. It's one of his most successful qualities - everyone is confident and convinced they have John as their ally."

This goes to the heart of the events that culminated in last Thursday's fragile ban on further debate about the single currency. For since ChristmasMajor has found it harder and harder to persuade both sides of the European argument that he is with them. And as Major has slid steadily towards one side, Clarke has not slid with him.

Clarke's two outstanding political qualities are consistency and courage. He may have exaggerated a mite when he repeated after the last Budget that his "views were as constant as the Northern Star"; but he is one of the least "Budget-trimming" of Conservative politicians since the war. He was a junior whip when the Heath government took Britain into Europe, entrusted with the vital task of secret contacts with the Labour rebels who finally delivered Heath his majority. Since then, he has been anything but a sentimental Euro-maniac, pointing out justly that whether at employment department or the Department of Trade and Industry, he was at the forefront of challenging the barmiest European directives.

He remains a certain runner in any foreseeable party leadship contest and has no doubt been as conscious as anyone of the need to attend to the centre-right constituency. He is a convinced opponent of the social chapter; but if the Tory party had been faced with the choice of accepting it or sabotaging the entire treaty, he might well come down in favour of the treaty. He believes passionately that for a Conservative government to close off the option of a single currency would be crazy; and he would almost certainly have resigned by now if Major had done that. His supporters say that his biggest achievement in the past few frantic days has been to secure a commitment that the next Tory manifesto will keep it open.

As with Europe, so with domestic policy; Iain Macleod, Heath's first Chancellor, has been a hero for Clarke since well before Macleod's death in 1970. Yet he was never a "wet" or a "consolidator"; he bought, after initial hesitation, the privatisation and competition elements of the Thatcher project; he certainly wanted to privatise the Post Office. But the combination of combative politics with a "one nation" hankering after social cohesion, a state which will underpin the middle manager thrown off course by economic change, alongside the struggling single mother, is very much Macleod's.

It may be that what is happening in the Tory party now is just a little like what happened to Labour in the early 1980s: that activists of increasingly vanguardist and extreme views are threatening to take charge. If a leadership contest were to happen now, no one could predict who, out of Portillo, Heseltine and Clarke, would win. By daring to stand his ground over the past 10 days, Clarke may have made more enemies on the Tory right, thereby helping Heseltine's fortunes. And Clarke is nowhere near as popular in the country as he is among politicians and journalists. But at 54, he is seven years younger than Heseltine. And his commonsense, untheological politics still look a good deal more threatening to a strengthening Labour Party than those of his more fundamentalist colleagues on the right.