Ken Clarke: 'I am very glad I am here. It’s the maddest situation I have seen in my entire political career'
Ken Clarke is the longest serving MP in the Commons – just don’t call him Father of the House. Inspired by Brexit to run in his Nottinghamshire seat for a 13th time at the last election, the Tory grandee believes British politics is in the midst of its “maddest” period since he first entered Parliament. Gearing up for what is likely to be the final battle of his career, the unflappable 77-year-old tells Robert Orchard how he thrives in a crisis
Another political New Year, another Cabinet reshuffle – but the man who’s held more Cabinet posts and spent more years at the top table than any other living politician no longer has to bother with the media circus surrounding this traditional ritual of musical chairs. At 77, Ken Clarke has another role these days – one rejoicing in the ancient parliamentary title of Father of the House, as the MP with the longest continuous service. Though ‘rejoicing’ may not be quite the right word.
“It is an absurd title!”, he harrumphs. “’Father?’ – I am not responsible for the paternity of any of them, as far as I am aware. Why can’t we just have, you know, Doyen of the House? Or Senior Member? What happens if Harriet Harman becomes the longest-serving member, are you really going to call her Mother of the House? Quite absurd. When people remark on the title I usually explain anxiously that it doesn’t mean I am the oldest MP… there are several older than me, some much older.”
After serving in the governments of four Conservative prime ministers – Heath, Thatcher, Major and Cameron – stretching all the way from 1972 to 2014, Clarke had announced he would finally stand down from the Commons at the next election. But that was before Theresa May’s fateful walk on the Welsh wild side of Snowdon last Easter. So why did he change his mind? “I am obviously a bit of an anorak, and I just couldn’t resist another parliament when such extraordinary political events are under way. I have to say I am very glad I am here. It is chaotic. It’s the maddest situation I have ever seen in my entire political career, but it’s also extremely interesting.
“We are in the middle of historic events on Europe and absolutely nobody knows what their precise nature is or where we are going. All the political normalities of this country have collapsed in the past two or three years.”
Having fought and won his Nottinghamshire seat for the 13th consecutive general election, Clarke is enjoying the freedom of being a backbench, constituency MP, a role he describes as “almost like semi-retirement” for him after the “enormous workload” of ministerial life. And the added cachet of That Title, he admits, does have its advantages in getting his voice heard in the Commons chamber: Clarke gets called to speak early in debates, government statements or questions.
“That is useful. I usually get called before the SNP,” he chortles. “You get a better House, more people there. That is very nice but I do also like sitting in the Commons listening to debates, so I may get called early but I don’t clear off unless I desperately have got to go to something I can’t get out of. I will sit for the next two or three hours listening to my colleagues.”
But while he admits he has “quietened down a bit”, his appetite for parliament – and his reputation as an operator within it – is undimmed.
The Speaker of the Commons, John Bercow, regards his long-time friend as “the stand-out parliamentarian of our times”. “He is an inspiring Father of the House, and whatever colleagues’ views on issues, I hope they will all agree that we are fortunate to have him,” Bercow says.
“He is a superb debater in the chamber in that he not only makes his own case powerfully but also engages with the arguments of his opponents more directly than anyone else I know.
“One of his most endearing characteristics is that he always plays the ball, rather than the man or the woman.”
The crossbench peer Nick Macpherson – who was private secretary to Clarke throughout his most successful post as Chancellor in John Major’s government – agrees. “He is perhaps our greatest living parliamentarian,” Macpherson says. “He has been there for more than 47 years and he has reduced the Commons speech to a fine art.”
Macpherson says he is struck by how popular Clarke is “with the younger generation”, a fact he puts down to the Father of House’s “extraordinary consistency” over Europe. “He has managed to articulate the hopes and fears of at least half the population over a long period,” he says. “He obviously doesn’t look at YouTube but he is very popular there. His speeches in the House of Commons are extremely popular among the younger generation.”
In an age where the watchword of many politicians seems to be ‘these are my policies and if you don’t like them I have others’, Clarke’s steadfast pro-European stance stands out. He accepts it has probably cost him dearly, ensuring he missed out on the leadership of the Conservative party – which he contested three times – and failed to achieve the ultimate prize of Number Ten, so why wouldn’t he trim or bend? “My keen helpers in all three of my leadership campaigns urged me to do just that and I politely declined,” he says. “I could not see the slightest point in trying to become leader of the party – and one therefore hoped prime minister – on a platform which I didn’t actually agree with.
“I have been perfectly clear and open all the way through about my views. That is why nobody really gets cross or annoyed with me about the views I am expressing now. I am on perfectly good terms with the Conservative whips: they are not remotely surprised. When I was in the whips’ office in the 1970s, I used to think less of people who caved in because I had spoken to them, trying to get them to change their view.”
Clarke says he has never fallen out with the “hardline Eurosceptics” in his party, and says he remains “on quite good terms” with the likes of Bill Cash and Iain Duncan Smith. “We all know we are not going to convert each other and we also know the other bloke is acting out of genuine conviction,” he says.
But he is concerned with the tone of the debate in recent months, and particularly the abuse levelled at some colleagues on his side of the Tories’ Brexit debate.
“I think the vast majority of the Conservative Party is in favour of what’s known as a soft Brexit, and the majority of the Cabinet. But they are subject to extraordinary attack the moment they break cover and reveal that. Partly they are denounced by the extreme right-wing newspapers. On both sides of the House, MPs are under pressure from their constituency associations.
“Being called ‘mutineer’ or ‘enemy of the people’ doesn’t worry me. I have been denounced by those newspapers often enough – I couldn’t care less, I don’t usually read them! I have had death threats on and off over the years... I have had one recently which one of my staff insisted on giving to the police because it was so serious. Do they bother me? There is nothing you can do about it.
“But I do feel sorry for my perfectly sensible younger colleagues who are having to put up with this extraordinary abuse for holding their views.”
One of Clarke’s defining characteristics as a leading politician of the modern era has been his unflappability as a minister. When all around him were losing their heads in a crisis, he would refuse to panic: “I quite enjoy crises,” he explains with some relish. “It must have driven my colleagues up the wall. It is rather like the present situation over Brexit. I find it interesting – it is a three-pipe problem. I tend to retain my rather cheery approach to it all and make unhelpful, black-humoured comments.
“I don’t get stress; I’m so laid back I am almost horizontal, which is why I have lasted longer, probably, than any of my contemporaries in active politics.”
Lord Macpherson, who retired last year as the top civil servant at the Treasury, and has fond and vivid memories of his former boss’s demeanour under fire. One famous example was when the Daily Mirror obtained a leak of one of Clarke’s Budgets the night before he was due to deliver it. “I wouldn’t say I was panic-stricken but I was clearly more concerned about this than he was,” Macpherson recalls. “I remember being told about the leak as we drove out of Buckingham Palace after Ken’s traditional pre-Budget audience with the Queen, and he rapidly concluded that there was absolutely no point in going back to the Treasury and sitting around panicking all evening, so we went off to a curry house in Pimlico for a tandoori. From time to time, Ken’s political team would ring up and demand to speak to him. His reaction was that if they wanted to come down to the restaurant and join us in enjoying a curry they would be very welcome, but if they wanted to continue to sit around panicking, they probably should stay where they were.” The former Chancellor puts it rather more pithily: “I insisted we went off for a curry till someone found me a lawyer to see if we could stop The Mirror printing the bloody thing, which eventually we did.”
The Commons Speaker, John Bercow, can also testify to Clarke’s fondness for Indian food: “His penchant for hot and spicy curry – which I enjoy consuming with him – is unsurpassed!” And he is another who admires Clarke’s humility. “He has never let success go to his head. Ken is as blokeish and down to earth as ever. He will talk to anyone and anyone can talk to him.”
That’s a view endorsed by Macpherson: “Unlike most modern politicians, Ken is in touch with the ordinary voter, middle England, call it what you will. Having watched cricket with him at Trent Bridge on many occasions, I can bear witness to the fact that he is only too happy to engage with his constituents. Over the years, having also attended the odd pub and jazz club with him, I have seen his ability to engage with voters, some of whom – going back to his time as Health Secretary or Home Secretary – hold him in less high regard than I do. He is always happy to engage in debate. This is in stark contrast to most modern politicians, who want to keep as far away from the public as possible.
“He also has another commodity rare in modern politics. Ken Clarke believes in, and is capable of, leadership. Whether on NHS reform or cutting the deficit, he was prepared to take positions which were unpopular in the short run but which now most of the electorate would accept as the right answer and a sensible way forward.”
Clarke himself once claimed he had closed more hospitals as Health Secretary than most people have had hot dinners, but he defends the policy to this day, insisting that many of them were “a dangerous disgrace” where he wouldn’t have advised any friend to be treated.
“Nowadays, everybody is bothered about tomorrow’s headlines and opinion polls but we never used to bother about those in the Thatcher years,” he says scornfully. And he wasn’t the kind of minister to disappear from public view in a crisis. “I am extremely combative, so when I was in the middle of my worst controversies I was out there three days a week arguing, trying to explain why I was doing what I was doing and answering my critics.”
“What you get judged by in politics is not whether you get good headlines or whether you get ferocious lobbies to like you. You get judged, if you are able to do the job for two or three years, by what it looks like towards the end. Are all the allegations of your critics coming true or does it look as though things are roughly under control and getting better? That is the approach you should adopt to really challenging jobs like that.”
But how does Clarke assess his failure to win the most challenging job of all? What’s it like being a member of that very exclusive club – along with Healey, Heseltine and Roy Jenkins, of ‘Best Prime Minister We Never Had’? “It is a very good club to belong to because you are never put to the test. Nobody will ever know how bad you might have been!”
Or how good. So, what might a Ken Clarke premiership have looked like?
“My political career has been free market economics with a social conscience, internationalism and the European project, so I would like to have furthered that. I would have hoped to continue what I regard as the sensible modernising of the country.
“We have made great progress but the thing that has gone wrong, looking back, is that whole sections of the population have been left behind. A lot of the angry, resentful protest against politicians and the Establishment – people listening to simplistic populist nonsense from the extreme right or extreme left spreading everywhere – has been because people like me from the economically-liberal Establishment have not paid enough attention to whole sections of the community that did not feel they were benefiting.
“I would like to think that if I had ever been leader and had been able to sustain the growth with low inflation which I aimed at and got when I was Chancellor, that we would have been able to do more to make sure the benefits were spread properly and that a rich minority did not give everything a bad reputation.”
Not surprisingly, perhaps, some of Clarke’s biggest fans are outside the modern Conservative party. Nick Clegg – Sir Nick since the New Year Honours for his time as deputy prime minister in the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government – says Clarke has emerged “as almost the sole standard bearer” for “common sense mainstream, internationalist Conservatism”, a school of thought he says is now increasingly endangered in the party.
“The one thing I find he abhors more than anything else is hyperbolic zeal in politics,” Clegg says.
“I used to say he was the extra Liberal Democrat in the Cabinet in the coalition years: he winced a little bit when I said it.
“We don’t agree on everything, of course, but on the big issues of the day and certainly in seeking to oppose the more excitable and breathless rushes to the head that a lot of his Conservative colleagues are vulnerable to, I could always rely on Ken to help me quell potty or headline-grabbing gimmicks.
“He has this wonderful, breezy disregard for the modern, media-obsessed way of doing politics.”
Clegg adds that, despite being “well-known as a thick-skinned rhino of a politician”, his former Cabinet colleague was never grand or high-handed. “He sat around a Cabinet table where we had a prime minister and deputy prime minister – David Cameron and me – who could both have been the age of his kids. He had occupied pretty well every position around the Cabinet table and even though Ken is known as being pretty loquacious and sometimes unstoppable in expounding on his views, the thing I found really memorable was that there was never even a hint of condescension, not a hint of him in any way patronising people who were a fraction of his age and possessed a fraction of his political experience.
“I do think that is one reason why he has survived for so long. He is a stubborn man, a resilient man, but not a proud man. He is happy to defer to the authority of others.”
The newly-knighted former Lib Dem leader is at a loss to explain why the last frontline politician of his generation still active as an MP, who boasts the longest government and cabinet service of any living elder statesman, has yet to be given the same honour. “Ken is one of those rare things in politics – a national treasure, a national institution. Why not Sir Ken?” he says. “Even the most zealous Tory Brexiteer would surely acknowledge that this man has provided such longstanding service to the country that he should get any honour he wants.”
The self-styled Doyen of the House says parliament has been transformed since he first arrived at Westminster nearly half a century ago. “Debates were much more important then. It was a much more powerful parliament. You had to concede sometimes to get your legislation through when I was in the Whips’ Office in the early 1970s. If you discovered that some of the knights of the shires were extremely unhappy, and there were problems, you would arrange a meeting with the minister handling the bill and make some concessions: it wouldn’t be lightly dismissed. Westminster was a political village in which, every day, ministers were here for hours alongside their parliamentary colleagues. As many things were sorted out in the Members’ Dining Room as in any formal meeting.”
Surely, then, the Commons should be very powerful now, with the government’s tenuous grip on power dependant on the deal with the Democratic Unionists? “It should be, but it only is if it starts voting,” Clarke says with some frustration. “There is a cross-party majority for an altogether more sensible approach to resolving this difficulty of how we leave the EU, a majority which I keep trying to get mobilised but so far with little success!”
Since leaving government, Clarke has been the most prominent Tory thorn in Theresa May’s side over Brexit – memorably ridiculing what he called her “Alice in Wonderland” strategy for leaving the EU. But despite his staunch opposition to Brexit – he was the only Conservative MP to vote against triggering Article 50 – Clarke now accepts that it is inevitable.
“I think the political class has doomed itself to leaving the European Union, despite the fact that at least two thirds of the members of this parliament would privately be in favour of staying in,” he says.
“They have all got themselves tied up by saying they would accept the result of the referendum and the triumphant Leavers have elevated the referendum result to a kind of religious tablet of stone handed down by our masters, The People. Of course, had the Leavers lost the referendum, none of them had the faintest intention of taking any notice of it at all.
“So yes, I think we are going to leave. I am more pessimistic than most pro-Europeans. The majority of them I know think it probably won’t happen in the end. I am more pessimistic than that. But I am optimistic about the outcome because on both sides of the Channel and in all parties there is a majority of sensible, intelligent people who know that you have got to agree on a new set of arrangements which do the minimum of damage and are in the best long-term interest of all the member states. This clown-like stuff about ‘No Deal’ and all that – there aren’t enough people who will allow that to happen, I hope. Unless they do it by accident. You can get various people talking themselves into deadlock by accident, and ‘No Deal’ would just be somebody miscalculating. There is a danger of that.”
Clarke feels sympathy for May but there’s a but: “She is pursuing quite sensible pragmatic policies, slowly, but unfortunately she always comes back and tries to explain them to hardline Eurosceptics in ferocious terms. She makes perfectly reasonable agreements with the other EU leaders of government, perfectly obvious agreements which she could have reached months ago on things like the Irish border or the money, but she or her colleagues come back and try to explain these agreements in terms that will satisfy the Daily Mail and Jacob Rees Mogg – unsuccessfully, I think.
“At the moment, it doesn’t feel as if anybody is in control over things. That is not Theresa’s fault. She is being treated quite appallingly by everybody. She is the only person capable of holding it together because she is so guarded and enigmatic and seems able to absorb and take the appalling punishment being inflicted on her by a government that is just openly at war with each other. I think Theresa May could carry on being prime minister for years, and I hope she gets in control of it. She is trying to, but she is not getting much help from some people in the Cabinet.”
Many Conservatives would retort that Clarke and his fellow rebel Tory MPs who inflicted an embarrassing defeat on the government’s EU Withdrawal Bill before Christmas aren’t being much help either, but the Father of the House dismisses that idea: “The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail put forward the idiotic suggestion that the government will fall if it loses an amendment, which it plainly won’t. Governments should lose amendments to bills sometimes but it doesn’t lead to the collapse of the government. It’s a daft proposition. After that defeat over giving parliament a clear vote on the Brexit deal that’s negotiated, Theresa May is not one whit weaker than she was. It has not undermined her negotiating position, and Jeremy Corbyn is no more likely to become prime minister than he was the day before we won that vote!”
So Ken Clarke is gearing up for one last major battle – but what then? For this self-confessed political anorak, might the House of Lords be an enticing prospect? The trademark Clarke chortle as he bats the question away: “I don’t know. I am realistic about my age: there is no great burning ambition which I have left to fulfil. My old friends obviously enjoy the House of Lords and they tell me to stop making rude remarks about it because they would quite like me to join them.”
For the moment, though, the parliamentary Battle of Brexit beckons, with 77-year-old Kenneth Harry Clarke leading the charge. And it’s a fight he is relishing.
“Anybody who tells you they know what is going to happen in British politics in 2018 is deceiving themselves. From Theresa May downwards, we are proceeding on the basis that nobody knows what is going to happen in the next fortnight, as ever-more astonishing events keep cropping up.
“What we decide in this parliament is likely to be of huge consequence for our relations with the rest of the world for the next couple of generations – our children and grandchildren – so I regard it as a privilege to be able to play some part in it. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”