The podgy maniac is the Tories' saviour

Kenneth Clarke is under attack from his own people, but his downfall would be theirs, too
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In most periods of human history, aspiring Great Ones were inclined to deal with rivals by throttling, dismemberment, poison, defenestratation or skewering. These days, they spin a line to a cheery hack in the lobby of the House of Commons. This is called progress and it does save on the cleaning fluid. But it can also be just as effective, as Kenneth Clarke can confirm.

The boys are going for Ken. The isolation of the Chancellor of the Exchequer is now common Commons talk. "Poor Ken", we are told, disagrees with the Prime Minister on policy, on tactics, on the size of the state, on Europe. Indeed, he disagrees with everybody these days. The contrived impression is of a podgy maniac of uncertain age picking fights with people in bus queues.

We will investigate the truth of this later. First, though, it is as well to be clear about what is going on, which is that numerous Conservative MPs and some cabinet ministers are fighting the 1997 leadership campaign. They regard Clarke as a potential problem who might as well be dealt with now.

He has never, of course, been popular on the right of the party. His contempt for the anti-Maastricht Tories is barely disguised. Come to think of it, very little about the Chancellor is disguised. He, rightly, is seen as a central obstacle to the Government deciding to rule out British membership of the single currency.

Up until now, this has angered the Tory right but it has not worried them. Clarke was seen as too leftish to be a credible next leader. The party was moving against him. This seemed obvious, though he himself always airily dismissed it, taking the view that opinion swung one way, then back again, and one could not plan picnics based on next year's weather.

The right, though, has the problem that it still lacks an agreed candidate to lead the party more vigorously against the welfare state and European entanglements. If the left of the party rallied behind Clarke, the right might yet have a fight on its hands, particularly if the economic record in 1996-97 looks good and Clarke gets the credit.

For once, though, it seems as if the right is not the prime source of the anti-Clarke mood music. It is centre-centre Tories, people such as Malcolm Rifkind, Brian Mawhinney, Gillian Shephard and their supporters whom the Clarke camp are worried about. In the lobbies, the Foreign Secretary is seen by anti-Maastricht campaigners as making a blatant pitch for their support.

It is centrists and former Tory leftists making their pilgrimage to the right who would benefit most if Clarke, as one of the last outspoken One Nation, pro-European Tories at the top of the party, was discredited and divided from the Prime Minister. That would leave the field clear for an alternative "healing" candidate.

At this point logicians will ask why, if everybody is speculating about the leadership election that would follow John Major's failure and resignation, it should be thought damaging not to be Major's best friend. Even simple souls may also be wondering a little at the absolute assumption underpinning this column that Major will be beat and will go.

These are good questions. Not least of the effects of the Harriet Harman affair has been its impact on the Prime Minister. His party is still in very deep trouble. It may yet start to crumble, the time of maximum danger being from May to early July, after bad local elections and before the recess, when the Commons is at its hottest and busiest. If there is no collapse, then the election is almost certain to be in spring 1997. But, either way, Major is surely now safe until polling day.

And possibly he will be safe afterwards. If he wins a workable majority he clearly stays, if only to revel in the discomfiture of his legion of critics. If he wins by a tiny margin, or is plunged into the fevered politics of a hung Parliament, he would also probably hang on. He does relish that sort of manoeuvring.

Granted, neither scenario is expected on the Tory benches. They think they will lose, though not necessarily by very much. (This near-universal view is, by the way, a little odd: if the Conservatives think they are "likely" to lose narrowly, then they must surely entertain the high possibility of winning narrowly, too. A close election is, by definition, unpredictable. But no one yet seems to think this way. It is one leap of the imagination too far.)

Even if they did lose narrowly, it is not obvious that Major would go. With a small Labour majority in the Commons and a large programme of constitutional reform to put through, there would be great opportunities for parliamentary ambushes on issues of huge importance. It would be an odd time for the Tory party to rip itself apart. One Major supporter suggests that 50 or so moderate MPs would implore him to stay as a matter of duty.

I am running too far ahead. But - and this is the point - so are those Conservative plotters. For the time being, Major is not a looming vacancy but the most important player of all. And a year is a long time in politics.

How is Clarke's relationship with him? There is no sign of trimming from the Chancellor. He has not moved an inch towards the anti-welfare zealotry of the new right. He is openly, and rightly, sceptical about the likelihood of getting the Government's share of national spending down to the 30-35 per cent so easily aired by other ministers, including the Prime one. He refuses to go with the powerful anti-EMU tide.

On all those issues one can indeed see some ideological gap, or at least a gap in style, between Chancellor and Premier. One might guess that Clarke may, in private, be just a little contemptuous of Major's eye for political fashion - and that he feels the same about once pro-European ministers who have suddenly become convinced that the single currency is dead.

That, though, does not take us to the split being talked up in the Commons corridors. On public expenditure and interest rates, the Treasury is delivering what has been asked of it. Tension between Numbers 10 and 11 is present - as it usually is. If Major were to push a harder anti-state agenda for the manifesto, it could worsen. But tension is not warfare.

The truth is that Clarke, however lonely he feels today, embodies a still vital section of the Tory coalition, close to the central consensus on welfare and close to business on European issues. Without it the party would become a minority sect, ceding to Labour the entire centre-ground of British politics.

The party may find him infuriating, obsolete and abrasively outspoken. But even his Conservative enemies need Clarke and what he stands for. Doing him in would, in reality, do in the Tory party. That the Tories apparently fail to realise this is about the only piece of good news that Labour has had for the past fortnight.

In fact, the greatest obstacle to the Conservative Party's re-election hope is now the Conservative Party itself.