Sunday, May 15, 2005

 

Ken Clarke, Bloody good bloke

Surviving Thatcherism, for those of us who had to, was made a tiny bit easier through the presence of Kenneth Clarke in her governments. A former grammar school boy, he skated through a variety of jobs at health, employment, DTI and then the Home Office before becoming Chancellor under John Major. While those of us in education protested long and loud when he held that portfolio, I for one, quite liked his blokish personna and his tendency to speak his mind even if it differed from those of his patrons. I simply could not understand why the Conservative Party did not snap him up as the best person to interpret the zeitgeist of the nineties and then to resist the incoming tide of Blair's charm offensive. I was struck, during the election by a spiffing article he wrote attacking Gordon Brown in the Guardian, towards the end of trhe campaign. It was the most convincing attack I had encountered during ther whole of the election period, focusing on aspects of Brown's stewardship which had not occurred to me and expressed in Clarke's distinctive style which engages equally effectively with people at both ends of the education spectrum.

Clarke's attempts to stand for leadership seemed disarmingly less than wholehearted, as if he couldn't really take politics all that seriously - a key part of his appeal in these disillusioned times. Being away in Vietnam on British American Tobacco business in 1997 - he is its Deputy Chairman - was typical of the man, but I am delighted he seems to have decided, at the relatively advanced political age of 64, to have another run at the job. And I hope he'll succeed as we will all benefit from an effective oppostion to Blair's government. But will he, if elected, mastermind the sort of transformation in Conservatism which Andrew Rawnsley says in todays Observer, which the party needs? The key word here, of course, is 'if'. Clarke is very unConservative, from his jazz loving to his hushpuppy footwear; from his beerdrinking and ciggies to his flabby physique. Nothing of the austere Thatcher, Hurd or Redwood about him, and one might even believe him if he claimed to have drunk 14 pints in a day. The sticking point last time, when he went head to head with Duncan-Smith, was Europe.

He believes we need the EU and vice versa and refuses, admirably, to dissemble or even trim. This is the fault line which broke Major but maybe, since then, the issue has declined in salience and the ageing xenophobes in the grassroots will have, perhaps, become less visceral in their prejudices. When the alternatives are surveyed - Osborne and Cameron too young, Davis too rightwing, Rifkind too old and resonant of Thatherism - Clarke is still the most compelling candidate. Unless his party wants him to go down as the Conservatives' Dennis Healey, another uncompromising heavyweight, its members would do well to overlook the European side of his personna and embrace his expertise in the many areas he has administered when in office as well as his peerless, self confident political skills.

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