Revealed: the secret talks between Major and Clarke

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THE NEWS that John Major had secretly been in communication with the enemy all along has come as a shock to the usual well-informed observers. Most of them had no idea at all that he was in such close contact with Kenneth Clarke.

'I consider myself to be well-informed,' says one observer. 'I also consider myself to be an observer. But I had absolutely no idea that John Major was on talking terms with Kenneth Clarke. You may have seen my article recently, in the normally well-informed Observer, called 'Why John Major and Kenneth Clarke aren't on speaking terms any more'. It was a lucidly and tautly argued thesis that set out to prove that our government was hampered by a total lack of communication between the Premier and the Chancellor. Now, the revelation that they have been having secret meetings all along - for years, perhaps - has made my normal authority seem shaky, and me look silly. I certainly won't be trusting certain reliable sources again for a long while.'

Most reasonable people had assumed that no meetings were taking place between Major and Clarke. It stood to reason. Major was the pragmatic, sensible, boringly worthy arm of government. Clarke stood for violence and terror. After all, he had already inflicted deep wounds on the medical and educational communities, and doctors and teachers still mention his name with a certain frisson. Now, it is well-known, Clarke is busy preparing to inflict as much similar damage on the whole economy of Britain as he can manage. Was it likely that there was any dialogue between the two? Especially as it was often said by normally reliable sources that Clarke's final aim was to displace Major by foul means or foul?

'I consider myself to be a normally reliable source,' says someone who wishes to remain anonymous. 'And I can say without hesitation that I had no idea that talks had been going on between Major and Clarke. We have always been told that relations between the two were icy. Was it not always accepted that Major saw Clarke as his main danger? Was it not agreed by everyone that the only reason Major made Clarke Chancellor was to destroy him? As he had destroyed Lamont before him? Was it likely that these two men would be having secret talks? Oh, dear] Normally, I am ever so reliable, but today I just feel really undependable.'

John Major has sometimes been described as someone who really does wish to remain anonymous. His style of dressing proclaims it. His manner of speech says so. The fact that nobody can remember anything he has ever said bears this out. Was it really possible that a man who wishes to remain anonymous could be doing something as exciting and dangerous as having secret talks with the enemy? Simon Garstang, an expert in the field, thinks he can see how it came about.

'I've been in the field a long time,' he says. 'I think you could call me an expert now. And I've seen it happen before. Enemies talking without realising it. Perhaps the occasional nod as they pass. Then a curt greeting. 'Morning, Ken'. 'Hello, John'. That sort of thing. Then pleasantries. 'Everything all right next door in No 11?' 'Can't grumble.' Then the odd exchange of specifics. 'Ken, my wife has asked me to ask you to keep your jazz records down a bit.' 'Certainly, old boy, but I only turned them up in the first place to keep the sound of her blasted opera out.' 'Know what you mean, Ken. You can thank your lucky stars that you don't live in the same house as an opera freak] . . .'

'Now, once you've established that sort of casual bonhomie, where you talk without saying anything, it's only one step further to the exchange of real ideas. So you might get Major saying one morning, 'Any idea what you're putting in the Budget, Ken?' and Ken says, 'Can't be specific, John, but if you're thinking of popping across the Channel on the fags'n'booze run before Christmas, I'd make it sooner rather than later, know what I mean, wink, wink . . .' And before you know where you are, you've got a dialogue going beween these two supposedly implacable enemies. Don't forget that there is more in common between the same level on opposite sides than different levels on the same side.'

What does that mean?

'It means that Rabin and Arafat have more in common with each other, as leaders, than they have with their own underlings. That the IRA and UVF understand each other better than you or I will ever understand either. That . . .'

Yes, but what has this got to do with Major and Clarke?

'Everything. Everything and nothing. Nothing . . .'

The phone clicked and the line went dead. I'll let you know if I discover anything else.