Fresh Tory row as Ken Clarke says he is ready to lead unity government to stop no-deal Brexit

Posted On: 
16th August 2019

A fresh Conservative row has erupted as veteran Tory Ken Clarke said he would be willing to head up a government of national unity if it was the "only way" to prevent Britain leaving the European Union without a deal.

Ken Clarke
Credit: 
The House magazine

Speaking out for the first time since Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson talked him up as a possible caretaker prime minister, the former justice secretary said he "wouldn't object" to the proposal if he could command the support of MPs.

But he was immediately blasted by one Brexiteer Tory colleague, who told PoliticsHome Mr Clarke was failing to "accept democracy".

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Ms Swinson has suggested that either Mr Clarke - known as the 'father of the House' because he is the Commons' longest-serving MP - or Labour grandee Harriet Harman would have a better chance of commanding the confidence of Parliament than Jeremy Corbyn if Boris Johnson's administration fell amid a Brexit rebellion.

Asked if he would be up for the job, Mr Clarke told BBC Radio 4's PM programme: "If it was the only way in which the plain majority of the House of Commons that is opposed to a  no-deal exit could find a way... I wouldn't object to it if that was, in the judgement of people, the only way forward."

Mr Clarke, who said he had not been "following the news" during a recent holiday, confirmed that Ms Swinson had been in touch to float the idea.

"I think Harriet probably said the same thing," he said.

"But I've been away for a fortnight, haven't been following the news, came back a couple of days ago and been trying to catch up with the news and I find that one of the propositions put forward is this one."

He added: "It's just one feature of a very important debate. Obviously the present government is quite committed to leaving with no-deal. Boris has allowed himself to be surrounded by those people.

"They're even talking about ignoring Parliament if necessary, and sending Parliament away if that's necessary, just for them to charge on and get through.

"The overwhelming majority of... MPs disagree with that. And they've got to find some way of demonstrating that, stopping it and actually, agreeing amongst themselves on what the reasonable alternative is.

"And a government of national unity is just one of the things that might be called for. It's not inconceivable."

The Conservative former Cabinet minister said Britain was now in "a similar situation" to 1931, when the UK saw its first national government at the height of the Great Depression as well as, "rather wildly, to the two world wars when the same thing happened".

'WESTMINSTER MEETS LA-LA-LAND'

But the suggestion that Mr Clarke - who has called for Britain to stay in the EU's single market and customs union if it leaves the bloc - could take the helm drew immediate condemnation from backbench Eurosceptic Nigel Evans.

The Conservative Ribble Valley MP told PoliticsHome such a move would be "Westminster meets la-la-land".

"The ideas are not just half-baked," he said. "They've been nowhere near an oven."

Mr Evans said of Mr Clarke: "He wasn't passive during the referendum. He took part in debates - and he lost.

"And he has to accept, therefore, that we can't be in the customs union and the single market if we're to do trade deals throughout the world and not pay billions in to Brussels' coffers. He must know that. And he must that that was on the table."

He added: "Ken had the opportunity to put his name forward to be leader of the Tory party and he's done so in the past and he's failed in the past. And the reason why he didn't put up this time was because he knew he was going to fail.

"It begs the question: at what stage do people like Oliver Letwin, Caroline Spelman, Guto Bebb and Ken Clarke and others accept democracy?"

CORBYN-SWINSON ROW

The row came as Jeremy Corbyn hit out at Ms Swinson for suggesting the Tory grandee as a possible caretaker Prime Minister.

The Labour leader this week issued his own plea for opposition parties and Conservative rebels to back him in deposing Mr Johnson through a vote of no confidence.

He then vowed to lead a "time-limited" government that would ask the EU for an extension to Article 50, before calling a general election.

But the Liberal Democrats questioned whether the Labour leader could command the confidence of the House of Commons, instead talking up Mr Clarke and Ms Harman as possible caretaker heads.

Mr Corbyn on Friday warned Ms Swinson that it was "not up to" her to "decide who the next prime minister is going to be".

The Labour leader told the Press Association: "Surely she must recognise she is a leader of one of the opposition parties who are apparently opposed to this government, and apparently prepared to support a motion of no confidence?

"I look forward to joining her in the lobbies to vote this government down."