Ken Clarke: “I have no regrets. I look back on my political career with considerable pleasure”

Posted On: 
11th July 2019

For all the uncertainties of the next general election, we know one thing for sure – it will bring to the end one of the most illustrious political careers of modern times. As he prepares for his swansong, Ken Clarke walks Sebastian Whale through his life story – from being part of the Cambridge mafia to his deep regret at Britain’s decision to leave the EU. And close friends and opponents share stories of the Tory grandee’s five decades in parliament

Ken Clarke has served as a minister under three Conservative prime ministers during his 49-year career
Credit: 
Paul Heartfield

With his top button undone, an over-tightened tie knot disappearing into his collar and his shirt untucked, Ken Clarke stops and asks: “I haven’t got any funny bits of hair sticking out, do I?”

The Tory grandee, not famed for his sartorial elegance, is exactly as I hoped I would find him; sitting almost horizontally on his chair, his legs stretched out underneath his desk. The same signature pose witnessed by a young David Gauke on a school trip to watch prime minister’s questions some 30 years ago. “I remember looking down and Ken Clarke was sat with his feet up on the table by the despatch box wearing his brown loafers, looking incredibly relaxed and comfortable,” the justice secretary recalled to me recently.

While others lose their calm around him, Clarke has always found a way to remain placid. Though his mobility has worsened, and his face carries the clues of a life well-lived, his affinity for politics continues to burn strong. “I’m still as big an addict as I ever was,” he tells me.

The 79-year-old recently announced he would not stand again for parliament. Admittedly, we’ve been here before – Clarke was going to call it a day at the last two elections. This time, however, he means business. “As I am going around a bit of an old crock with aches and strains, it’s time to pack it in. I don’t have the energy I used to have.”

The next election, whenever it arrives, will wrap up one of the most illustrious political careers of modern times. During nearly five decades in parliament, Clarke has held several Cabinet positions, including Chancellor of the Exchequer, and served under three prime ministers. All the while, he has accumulated admirers from across usual political dividing lines, many of whom have taken the time to speak about their beloved colleague and friend.

“I would call him a Titan of our times,” says John Bercow, the Speaker of the Commons. “Some politicians are fine ministers but lousy parliamentarians. Some other politicians are fine parliamentarians but are, or would be, lousy ministers. Ken’s distinction is that he has proved the complete politician: a brilliant minister and a brilliant parliamentarian. Wise, skilled in debate, principled and good-humoured – he is the best of us.”

This is the story of a cigar-smoking, jazz-loving, unabated europhile from the midlands; a man who some say is the best prime minister we never had.

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Kenneth Harry Clarke, named after his father, a mining electrician who went on to become a watchmaker and jeweller, was born on 2 July 1940 in West Bridgford, Nottinghamshire. He came from humble and at times difficult beginnings; his mother, Doris, suffered from clinical depression and had a drink problem. Clarke though is of a generation that does not dwell on the negative. In the opening line of his 2016 memoirs, Kind of Blue, he writes: “I have never thought very much of politicians who make a great deal of their poor-boy origins.”

Aside from his communist grandfather (a fact Clarke relays with glee), his was not a political family. The precocious Clarke knew in primary school that he wanted to become an MP. He would read his father’s Daily Mail, hoovering up the political reports to find out how Attlee’s government were rebuilding post-war Britain (a devout lover of all things sport, he would also read the back pages).

Clarke, a high achiever academically, got accepted into Nottingham High School. He joined the debating society in sixth form, where he argued in favour of the UK’s involvement in the Suez crisis, a foreign policy decision he quickly realised was a “debacle”.

Clarke was accepted to study law at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. Given he was not a member of a party, he tapped up various political associations to see “which was going to have the privilege”, he jokes. While at university, he grew close to a group of Conservatives now known as the Cambridge Mafia. They included Norman Lamont, Michael Howard, Norman Fowler and John Gummer, all of whom would go on to high office.

Howard, the former Tory leader who is now a Lord, first met Clarke when he visited his study to discuss what to do in relation to the Cambridge University Conservative Association (CUCA) committee elections. “We’ve remained friends ever since. On most issues, we probably agree with each other. Obviously, we don’t agree with each other on Europe,” Howard tells me.

The pair were close acquaintances, but also rivals. Howard beat him to become secretary of the student union after Clarke faced a backlash for inviting former British fascist leader Oswald Mosley to speak at the CUCA (Howard, who is Jewish, had quit the association in protest). He took on the post the following year. Iain Macleod, the former government minister, was the Cambridge Mafia’s political hero. Other Tories, including Rab Butler and Enoch Powell, would often speak at the student union.

Though Clarke’s politics were malleable, he had decided that the Conservative modernisers were “coming to terms with the late 20th Century”. The Labour party at the time, he says, was “very left-wing” and “very reactionary”. His home city of Nottingham was dominated by the Labour movement. “I associated that with post-war austerity and what was becoming decline,” he explains.

The Tory party’s embrace of the proposed European Community under Harold Macmillan sealed the deal. After being convinced by Gummer, Clarke wore a pro-European Community badge to his first Tory party conference, where the Conservative leader was seeking to defend the move against “our old imperialist right, who were invoking the Dunkirk spirit”, he says.  So much has changed, I point out. Clarke laughs. “It’s the same split, almost the same arguments.”

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Clarke, who was called to the bar in 1963, tried in 1964 and 1966 to become MP for Mansfield. In June 1970, aged 29, he was elected as MP for Rushcliffe, ousting Labour’s Anthony Gardner.

“Plenty of people find a career they think they’re going to enjoy, and they don’t. I took to it like a duck to water; I thought it was marvellous,” he says. “I wasn’t as overawed about it as I might have been – the Cambridge union bit meant I’d acquired this awful Oxbridge self-confidence.”

While the culture at parliament was markedly different, settling in as an MP was also a completely different ball game. “No one explained to you what to do when you got here,” Clarke recalls. Don Concannon, who had defeated Clarke twice in Mansfield years earlier, was the most helpful MP. “He was the only bloke who explained to me what to do and gave me a few tips.”

In 1972, he was appointed an assistant whip, rising to whip before becoming a junior industry spokesman under Margaret Thatcher. In 1979, Clarke was appointed a minister in the Department for Transport under his old mate from Cambridge, Norman Fowler, a fellow first-timer. “I had to find out how to be a minister,” he says. “You had to find out where it was, go there and discover what you did and introduce myself nervously at the entrance. An equally nervous young man came up, shook my hand and said he was my private secretary, and I had no idea what that meant, but he took me off.”

Clarke did not vote for Thatcher in the 1975 leadership race. In fact, he has never voted for the eventual winner at the first time of asking during his entire parliamentary career, other than when he supported Sir John Major against a challenge by Sir John Redwood in the mid-90s.

Unlike many of Clarke’s opinions, his view of Thatcher has evolved over the years. He describes her as “dynamic” with strong convictions. “She loved political rows. She was extremely combative, but then, so am I,” he notes. “It was great fun if you could stand the hassle.”

Despite being a self-proclaimed Tory wet, Clarke conceded that what her government was doing was “desirable”. “I think Attlee and she were the two great peacetime prime ministers of the 20th Century,” he says.

Major’s election victory in 1992 secured Thatcher’s legacy, Clarke argues. “The defeat in ’92 shocked Blair, Brown and Mandelson into realising there was no future in fighting Thatcherism. They actually made no attempt whatever to reverse any of the things that she had done.”

But for all his praise, Clarke still remembers some of the more challenging aspects of Thatcher’s leadership. “She could be extremely rude if she disagreed with you. She was unbelievably persistent… She used to drive me up the wall sometimes.”

Despite this, Thatcher kept on promoting Clarke. After a string of ministerial roles, he was appointed Health Secretary in July 1988, where he introduced the concept of the internal market to the NHS (Thatcher was pushing for an American-style insurance system, but he resisted). He faced fierce opposition from doctors and the British Medical Association. Before he had pushed the reforms through, the former PM called him into her office. He knew it was bad news.

“Margaret, I’m about to press the bloody button. You can’t sack me now,” he told Thatcher.

“My dear boy, it’s time to move,” she replied.

“Margaret, if it all goes pear-shaped, you can sack me.”

“I most surely will, my dear boy.”

Thatcher decided to move Clarke into the Department for Education, where Kenneth Baker’s reforms had stalled. She knew that Clarke, who had a similarly combative approach, would be dogged and determined. Among other policies, he established Ofsted, developed grant-maintained schools (now known as academies) and introduced SATs.

Jacob Rees-Mogg first met Clarke when he spoke at the Oxford Union in the late 1980s. “He played a very important role under Margaret Thatcher in some of the most difficult reforms that she was making. On non-European policy, he was an absolute trooper for Thatcherism,” he tells me.

Tony Blair, the former prime minister, became an MP in 1983. He remembers Clarke giving a statement on healthcare with “complete aplomb and precision”, despite coming from a “long lunch” with a group of journalists. “I thought that’s a guy with nerves of steel,” he tells The House.

“He’s seen as a very thoughtful, very reasonable, non-tribal, very assiduous, energetic parliamentarian,” says Harriet Harman, who used to view Clarke as one of Thatcher’s “praetorian guard”. They work together as the longest-serving man and woman in the Commons. “He’s very up for doing stuff which is about the interests of the House. I jokingly say we’re mother and father, but we’re not married, but we might as well be because we hang out so much.”

Clarke says of the Thatcher government: “We didn’t take any notice of opinion polls, we knew we were extremely unpopular, and we didn’t have a popular policy in our portfolio. That wasn’t what we were there for.

“Politics was the art of explaining what you were doing, why you were doing it and arguing against your critics and getting it through parliament and implementing it. Nowadays, people don’t do that. They have public relations advisers, they look up vast numbers of opinion polls and if the public says they don’t like the sound of that, then they don’t do it.” He adds: “I don’t think we ever will go back to that kind of Cabinet-based, two-party government.”

Clarke was appointed Home Secretary in 1992 under Major, and after Norman Lamont was sacked following Black Wednesday, he was moved to the Treasury. During his tenure, inflation, unemployment and interest rates all fell.

Lord Howard comments: “He was a much better Chancellor than pretty well anyone else could ever have been. I would have liked to have become Chancellor, but I think John Major made the right decision. He was absolutely outstanding. He did very good things in all the government offices he held, and he will be remembered as a towering political figure.”

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Elmar Brok, a senior German politician who is a close ally of Angela Merkel, told me recently that Clarke was the best prime minister Britain never had. It is a moniker that Clarke has often received during his career.

He first stood for the leadership in 1997 but lost out to William Hague in a contest that was kept solely to MPs. In 2001, then the favourite, Clarke was defeated by Iain Duncan Smith as the final decision went to Tory members. A third bid in 2005 saw him lose in the first round of voting.

Friends say that should Clarke have shown a bit of eurosceptic leg, he most certainly would have become party leader. “Unequivocally. In many ways, he was the political figure of our generation,” says Lord Howard. 

Rees-Mogg agrees. “Had he been willing to change his views on Europe, he would have won the Tory leadership.” Which contest, I ask. “Almost any – probably this one, too!”

Anna Soubry, the leader of the Independent Group for Change, says: “Ken could have tricked people as I think in truth David Cameron did and he could have pretended to be something that he wasn’t… but he was true to what he believed in.”

Others around Clarke tried to convince him to soften his views. “My friends made great efforts to try to make me give a eurosceptic speech,” he recalls. He adds: “Had it stayed with MPs in 2001, Michael Portillo or I would have won. The MPs would not have elected Iain Duncan Smith and the membership would have elected me [in 1997] because William Hague was a young almost unknown.”

Does Clarke have any regrets at being a member of the ‘best PM we never had’ brigade? “It’s a great club to belong to because no one will know how bad you would have been,” he quips.

“I had a great political career. That’s life. If you told me when I started that I’d be parliamentary undersecretary of state for transport I would have leapt at it. So, if you told me that I’d keep having a perfectly serious attempt to become leader of the Conservative party, I would have been absolutely marvelled at the prospect that I could ever get there.”

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Anna Soubry, who also has roots in Nottinghamshire, counts Clarke as her political hero. She first came across him while working as a reporter at Central Television in the 1980s. They subsequently met in the early 2000s at a fundraiser for the Rushcliffe Conservatives. Her daughters, then 11 and 12, waitressed at the event. Despite not taking much interest in politics, they were “absolutely thrilled” to meet the then backbencher.

“It was young people that absolutely identified with Ken’s politics and his personality. It’s just the honourable way that he has consistently conducted himself,” Soubry recalls.

One of five ministers to have served throughout the 18 years of consecutive Conservative government, Clarke returned to the backbenches post the 1997 election. He took on company directorships and became the deputy chairman of British American Tobacco. He vehemently opposed the invasion of Iraq and continued to push for greater UK integration in the EU, including sharing a platform with Tony Blair on joining the euro.

The former prime minister recalls of Clarke: “Ken is something very rare in politics today, unfortunately. Reasonable, open-minded, basing his views not on ideological pre-conception but on rational analysis, remarkably free from ego or petty politics, and fun! He has been a consistent advocate for Britain’s place in Europe, and kept his end up in the Conservative Party despite all the pressure to cave. He’s someone I have real respect for.”

Clarke returned to the Tory front bench under David Cameron in 2009 as shadow business secretary and was made justice secretary after the 2010 election. His laidback approach was somewhat at odds with the fine-tuned Cameron operation. Soubry recalls being rung up by his then PPS, Ben Wallace, asking if she was with Clarke. “Where’s Ken, we think he’s at the cricket,” he asked. Soubry, then a defence minister, was on a ministerial visit. Her aide, who was at Nottinghamshire’s Trent Bridge at the time, tracked Clarke down in the crowds.

Despite rumours, Soubry insists that Clarke does, in fact, have a mobile phone. “He just doesn’t use it,” she adds. His long-suffering staff are always chasing after him, she jokes. In June, members of Rory Stewart’s leadership team (who he backed) desperately tried to track him down to vote in the first round of the contest to replace Theresa May. “It’s remarkable, he’s so relaxed,” says Soubry.

Clarke was made minister without portfolio in the Cabinet before returning to the backbenches for good in 2014. He was left incandescent at Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, a vote he describes as an “opinion poll”. “That is the final, ultimate absurdity. The present politics is a sort of three-ring circus. It doesn’t persuade the public or bring the public confidence,” says Clarke.

Post the 2016 referendum, Clarke has found new voice as a strident europhile on the increasingly eurosceptic Conservative benches. He and his allies in the newly formed awkward squad find themselves isolated in the current Tory party.

That said, Clarke maintains good relations across the Brexit divide. Sir Bill Cash, a long-time sparring partner, holds mutual respect for his old adversary. “His views and mine on Europe are as far apart as you can get. I’ve always rather liked him, because of his consistency actually,” says the chair of the European Scrutiny committee. They have dinner occasionally in parliament. “We talk about history, Conservatism as a political philosophy if you like. We have an awful lot which we really do get on well with. He watches cricket as well, which I’m passionately keen on.”

Rees-Mogg says of debating Clarke: “He was obviously one of the tough adversaries to come up against because he is so distinguished and high powered and marshals his arguments extremely well, but also enjoyable. There’s always something exciting about debating with somebody who was a lead figure when you were still a schoolboy. You can’t help but be impressed by their authority.”

But is there still space for Clarke’s form of One Nation Conservatism? “Yes, at the moment,” Clarke replies. “We’ve gone for this party democracy and about 40% of the membership are people who joined after the referendum and it’s obviously lurched to the nationalist right.”

Citing a recent YouGov survey of Tory members, he adds: “People who answer an opinion poll question saying they’d be quite happy to see the breakup of the United Kingdom if it was necessary to England to get Brexit, I would not regard as members of a Conservative and Unionist party. So, we will just have to see what form the party takes once it’s got a new leader.”

Lord Howard says: “The party has moved away from him, I think that’s undoubtedly true because it is a much more eurosceptic party now than it was when we were in government. I don’t think that means that there’s no place for him in the Conservative party, not at all. The Conservative party has got to remain a broad church and include people who hold different views on a whole range of issues including that of the European Union.”

A friend of Clarke’s tells The House that he might be standing down before he is pushed, saying he has “run out of steam with his association”. “It is like the lunatics taking over the asylum. He knows he’s gone as far as he can. It would be grossly appalling if someone of Clarke’s ability and standing were not to be selected again.”

Clarke is confident in his own conservatism. “They can decide what they are,” he says. Noting Lord Heseltine’s suspension from the party, he says: “I mean it is complete comedy for someone who’s so much a part of the Conservative establishment is suspended from the party – utterly ludicrous!”

But Clarke knows that if he follows through on a recent threat to block no deal Brexit, he could suffer a similar fate. “If I wind up voting against a vote of confidence in the Government, I don’t know what they’ll do,” he says. “I’ve absolutely not ruled it out. I will decide which way I’m going to vote on any confidence motions in September when we see what the new prime minister says he’s going to do.”

How has he viewed the leadership contest? Clarke chortles. “Tragic farce!” he booms. “A totally unrepresentative selectorate are being appealed to by two candidates, both of whom are pitching themselves at the electorate in such a way that they’re being very disingenuous about their actual opinions.” 

Does Clarke believe the UK will re-join the EU? “I personally hope so, but I’m not counting on it. I shall not live to see the day I don’t think,” he replies. But he adds: “In ten years’ time I don’t know what the EU will look like, what will the state of affairs look like in British politics then. There’s a prospect. I don’t think the next generations will wish to remain in this weird, one-off rather isolated position in the world.”

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For Soubry, the only saving grace of an early election is the prospect of trying to convince Clarke to stay on in parliament. But he would take some budging. “I really must bow out, I’m going to retire,” he stresses.

Clarke had a son and a daughter with his wife Gillian, who tragically passed away in 2015. When I ask if he would take a role in the House of Lords, he replies: “Probably. My family would talk me into it.”

Sir Bill Cash says: “He sadly lost his wife a few years ago, which was a great tragedy for him. I think he’s chosen to go as much as anything because he does repeatedly state, and he’s very realistic about it, Brexit is going to happen. He doesn’t have any doubt that he’s lost that argument.”

For all his achievements, Clarke remains unfailingly laid-back and easy company. “That is the biggest, most striking thing about this amazing man who’s held most of the great offices of state. He couldn’t be less grand and less elegant,” Soubry says.

I have one question left. Would he do anything differently? He appears startled, as though the idea of looking back has never crossed his mind.

“Well, I’ve made quite a few pigs ears in my time, everybody does,” he says.

After mulling over his 49 years in British politics, searching for anything he’d like to do over, he looks me in the eye and smiles. “I’m becoming a complacent old so and so. I have no regrets. I look back on my political career with considerable pleasure.”