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Lord Clarke interview: The 'Big Beast' looks back on a career dominated by Europe

Lord Clarke (Credit: Reuters/Simon Dawson)

7 min read

Now in the Upper House after 50 years in the Commons, ‘Big Beast’ Lord Clarke shares with Sienna Rodgers his reflections on the Conservative Party, the economy and a career dominated by Europe

Lord Clarke answers the door of his Nottinghamshire home and steps into the front room before taking his seat in a huge, comfy armchair. The living area is stuffed full: letters and collectible ornaments on every surface; pictures, from old black-and-white portraits to newer digital family photos made into canvas prints; piles of books, mostly political tomes, are stacked high on the floor. Many of these bits and pieces belonged to, or serve as reminders of, his late wife Gillian, who died seven years ago. 

A large television is showing Al Jazeera, the state broadcaster of Qatar – an unusual choice for a Conservative politician. Clarke says he enjoys foreign news and even misses the Russian channel RT, which was taken off our screens earlier this year in response to the invasion of Ukraine. TV is the Tory peer’s preferred choice of media, as the 82-year-old largely rejects the online world.

“I always said the idea of Boris becoming prime minister was extraordinary… He never had the right temperament”

“The first respect in which I’m an old fogy is I have never really come to terms with the digital age, and I don’t believe I ever will,” Clarke tells The House. “I still can’t go on the internet or anything like that. When it was first introduced, I took no notice and assumed it would not affect my life – I didn’t need to bother with this nonsense.” He “downloads” his emails only every three to four days. He does have an iPad, however, as this was required on his appointment to the House of Lords two years ago.

Has he adjusted to his new life as a peer? “Not totally,” Clarke says, puffing on one of his trademark cigars, shoeless feet resting on a stool. “I potter about there. It’s a strange, archaic institution, which I’ve always believed should be reformed.” 

He travels to London to spend two days a week in the Lords when it is sitting, though he prefers to listen to the debates than contribute. “Some of my friends in the Upper House are disappointed that they can’t persuade me to take it too seriously,” he says wryly. “Because I’m afraid I don’t think anybody else takes it very seriously.”

Clarke tried three times to become Tory leader – “it’s the only bad habit I’ve ever given up” – and, although he held no fewer than six cabinet posts, the “Big Beast” of British politics admits he would like to have reached the very top. “I do regret never having become prime minister,” he says. “It’s obvious looking back, I was just too pro-European for the Conservative membership, certainly, and probably for the Conservative parliamentary party.”

The Tory grandee’s entire 50-year career as an MP was dominated and bookended by Europe. As a newcomer in the early 1970s, he served as a Tory whip on the European Communities Bill; as a retiring politician in 2019, he had the whip withdrawn over his Brexit rebellion.

In his memoir, Kind of Blue, Clarke describes how the European Communities Act was passed thanks to his work with the Jenkinsites in the Labour Party and his covert partnership with a Labour whip. Together, they ensured enough pro-European opposition MPs were prepared to abstain. “I’d tell him how many we thought we needed, and he would tell me how many he thought he could get,” he recalls. “That’s how we got into Europe.”

Another key moment came when Clarke agreed in 1996 to then-prime minister John Major’s pledge that Britain could only join the euro after a referendum. “Michael [now Lord] Heseltine and I have often agreed that this is the biggest mistake we both made in politics,” Clarke says. “John was so fiercely convinced that this would stop us having all the problems with the Eurosceptics, it would take all the heat out of the issue, and it wouldn’t bother us anymore.

“It’s very similar to the reasons David Cameron called his referendum [on Britain’s membership  of the European Union]... to try and get the party to stop ‘banging on about Europe’, as he put it. But he didn’t consult me. I just had a bloody great row with him the next day where I complained that he’d done it. I should have resigned, but I didn’t.”

Although Clarke calls the 2016 vote to leave the EU “one rather silly opinion poll”, and says the three-week “ridiculous short campaign” means “we might as well have spun a coin”, he is reconciled to the result. “I accept that the idea of our rejoining the European Union is, for the time being, completely dead.”

Clarke says any attempt to rejoin the single market would re-arouse bitterness, although he does believe arrangements with the EU should be improved. “The [last] government [had] Jacob Rees-Mogg trying to invent new barriers to trade all the time,” he complains. “As we can’t agree to implement properly the deal that was negotiated, we need to improve our relations with the EU as quickly as possible and negotiate something which is in both our interests.”

Will “getting Brexit done” be Boris Johnson’s legacy? “Well, we haven’t got Brexit done,” Clarke replies. Asked about the events that led to the former prime minister’s departure, he says: “People will think the whole two and a half years looking back quite bizarre. It was a cumulative effect of actually rather trivial things that led to him leaving. There were other, more serious things that nobody got very excited about.” He describes both the Owen Paterson saga and the prorogation of Parliament as “real” threats to standards in public life.

“I always said the idea of Boris becoming prime minister was extraordinary. I’ve known Boris for 40 years – I like him! I’m on good terms with him. He’s a highly intelligent, very entertaining guy with a larger-than-life personality; I find, an attractive personality. But he’s not got the right temperament for it. He never had the right temperament. He didn’t take it seriously and couldn’t be persuaded to take it seriously.”

Reflecting on how Johnson withdrew the whip from him, Clarke says: “In my case, it didn’t matter, because I’d already announced that I wasn’t going to stand again anyway. It was no good telling me I wasn’t a Conservative – I regard myself as a mainstream Conservative. I was a [Margaret] Thatcher minister for heaven’s sake, from beginning to end.”

He will not say whether he voted Tory or Liberal Democrat at the last election, sayng of the latter that “the only point in their existence is a vehicle for protest”. He continues: “There are a lot of sadly semi-detached Conservatives who feel a bit politically homeless and slightly pushed to the fringes.”

The peer is concerned about the “severe” recession ahead and what he describes as the country’s deep cynicism. “This anger, this polarisation, this sudden attraction to theatrical personalities who appear to have simple answers for everything – that is very, very damaging, and it’s leading to a weakening of the western world as a whole,” he warns.

He is even more scathing about new Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s not-so “mini-budget”, which initially included a tax cut benefitting the highest earners. “I don’t accept – I never have, the Conservative Party never has – the overall premise of [this] budget, which is that you make tax cuts for the wealthiest five per cent. I’m afraid that’s the kind of thing that’s usually tried in Latin American countries without success,” he tells the BBC.

Pouring scorn on the idea new Prime Minister Liz Truss is pulling the government in a Thatcherite direction, he continues: “If it works, they’ve suddenly discovered a new formula that has eluded the Conservative Party throughout my time. But I don’t think anybody I was ever in government with would have contemplated a budget like this.”

Coming from one of the UK’s most highly respected former chancellors, the attack is significant. Add to this that Clarke spent half a century dealing in the politics of Britain’s relationship with Europe and is clearly frustrated by the way in which Brexit unfolded, it is somewhat surprising that he nonetheless strongly defends politicians. Most of them don’t deserve the public’s disdain, he says. This evening he is off to dinner with his successor as the local Tory MP, Ruth Edwards. Clarke may have been “slightly pushed to the fringes” of his party – but he has not lost faith in the political system.

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