Ken Clarke and what could have been

After interviewing Lord Heseltine about a decade ago, I confided in him how it was his generation of prominent 80s and 90s Conservatives that got me interested in politics when I was a young child and the teenager.

From Margaret Thatcher to Douglas Hurd, Norman Tebbit to Edwina Currie, John Major to John Redwood, Steve Norris to an emerging Michael Portillo, they were such distinct, often squabbling personalities who made politics so fascinating; an ever-evolving, overly dramatic script full of plot holes (where did William Hague come from?), infighting (the ‘cabinet of bastards’), backstabbing (Geoffrey Howe accusing Thatcher of breaking her team’s bats), absurd, improbable escapes (Major’s 1992 election win), and crushing defeat by a juggernaut (the 1997 election).

“Yes, we were buccaneers!” Heseltine declared proudly. “But, no, Thatcher and I don’t exactly talk.”

Strong personalities, naturally, led to rifts and that of Heseltine and Thatcher was not one that could be bridged even through shared nostalgia for their political pomps.

The Times’ current serialisation of Ken Clarke’s memoirs is a reminder of how that other great Tory titan of the age remained at the political forefront for far longer than his peers. The cigar, suede Hush Puppies, jazz, and cricket enthusiast is still a thundering orator from the backbenches and held cabinet positions in the Coalition two decades on from dominating 90s politics as a reformist chancellor.

Reading his take on failed bids to win the Conservative leadership no fewer than three times (1997, 2001 and 2005) – he essentially, and correctly, puts it down to his unflinching support for the EU and, more damningly, the single currency – it is hard not to wonder what would have happened had he won on each of those occasions.

Clarke is, of course, on virtually every list of best prime ministers we never had – Prospect magazine had him at number three in 2014, while The Independent’s John Rentoul puts him fourth.

Had he succeeded Major, Clarke certainly would not have taken his top team down a log flume wearing baseball caps emblazoned with his name as an early publicity shot. But, otherwise, it’s hard to see how even this most loved of Conservatives would have battled Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in their early years – Clarke would have lost heavily in 2001, just not quite so badly as Hague, who achieved only one net gain from Labour.

Had Clarke won second time around it is inconceivable he would have done as poorly as Iain Duncan Smith. Clarke’s popularity in the media and public alone would have meant his profile was higher than the self-styled “quiet man” and he wouldn’t have lost the job after just two years.

Of course, it’s important to remember that Michael Howard, Clarke’s Cambridge University and political contemporary, was coronated because the party wanted a safe pair of hands to steer them to the general election. Frankly, the Conservatives weren’t expecting victory, but they did want some reversal of fortunes to prepare them for a full assault on Number 10 next time around. 

And that’s what they got, gaining a net 32 seats, though that still left them with only 198 MPs to Labour’s 358. Incredibly, Alastair Campbell, Blair’s former spindoctor, said this felt like a defeat after two such enormous landslides and it should be noted the Conservatives were only 2.8% down in overall votes cast.

Despite Clarke’s ebullient manner, he too would have been the ‘safe’, heavily experienced candidate had he beaten IDs in the 2001 run-off for Conservative leader. His task would have been the same as Howard’s, only starting two years earlier, to bring the Conservatives back to respectability.

The trouble is, Euroscepticism was on the march once more and he would have struggled to keep his party together. I suspect he might have done slightly better than Howard through sheer force of personality, but he might well have been chopped early by a dysfunctional, factionalist party.

Then there’s 2005. It’s hard to see how Clarke could have beaten Cameron, given they shared a similar, centrist platform, the only difference being the latter showed no great enthusiasm for the EU (a position that fatally undermined his campaign against Brexit over a decade later).

But let’s say Clarke could have bettered Cameron, that it was the veteran MP rather than Old Etonian who delivered the quite brilliant 2005 Conservative conference speech that destroyed the hopes of hot favourite David Davis.

In 2007, new premier Gordon Brown crumbled when his aides were briefing he would call a general election the following spring. The polls suggested Brown would win, but possibly less impressively than his old rival Blair.

George Osborne, got wind of the announcement and knew he and Cameron were faced with certain defeat, so threw the dice. The shadow chancellor announced a bold, populist policy of increasing the threshold for inheritance tax to £1m. It was a commitment Brown had considered earlier that year.

It was enough to make the indecisive Brown panic and serve a full five-year term -  and gave the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats the opportunity to paint him as a weak, confused prime minister. He never recovered and Cameron reached Number 10 when the election was eventually held three years later.

We’ll never know if Clarke would have possessed a chancellor with Osborne’s - depending how you see it - luck or tactical brilliance. But it is conceivable Brown would have been similarly careful when being opposed by the formidable Clarke at a time when the credit crunch was starting to bite, Labour’s popularity was inevitably declining after a decade in power, and facing a Conservative Party that had, for the time being, parked its EU infighting.

My suspicion is, then, that even in the third scenario, Clarke would have secured the Conservatives a very similar result to the one that eventually occurred.

If I’m right, what does that tell us about leadership? That it doesn’t matter?

No. Although the destination was the same because of the short-termism of a single election cycle, the journey would have been very different with Clarke and, probably, an awful lot more fun would have been had along the way.

What would have been different is what happened once that destination was reached.

Defeats in 2001 and 2005 under Clarke would have seen an even sharper rise in Euroscepticism that would have plagued the Conservatives for even more years. Cameron might not then have happened and the party might have missed out on having a centrist in charge just as Labour was ripe for the taking by a moderate opposition.

A Clarke premiership in 2010 would probably have been less austere, Chris Grayling’s justice reforms would never have been allowed, and, most crucially, a EU referendum never promised let alone called.

And perhaps we wouldn't have ended up with parties led by Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May had Clarke taken over the Conservatives at the third time of asking. Certainly, May might have struggled to get her chance without the chaos of a Brexit referendum and Labour might well have gone for a slick 21st century politician to take on the more disheveled Clarke.

That would have been a shame, because these two personalities have made politics fascinating again. Love them or loathe them, they, like Clarke and the Tory big beasts of a generation ago, will get young people interested in politics. 

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