Enter the wry and brilliant barrister who could be just what the Tory party’s spin doctor ordered.
Boom! BOOM! BOOM! Remember that bit in Jurassic Park when the T.Rex makes its first appearance as a ripple in a glass of water? This time it’s another big beast who’s on the move, stamping out of the political wilderness in search of a juicy job and inspiring Tony Blair’s extraordinarily candid comment yesterday to ‘never underestimate the Tories.’ This giant lounge lizard has an astonishing CV, and, even today, more experience of government than anyone in the current cabinet, the Prime Minister included. Let’s remind ourselves:-
Junior Transport Minister 1979-82
Health Minister 1982-85
Paymaster General 1985-87
Chancellor of Duchy of Lancaster 1987-88
Health Secretary 1988-90
Education Secretary 1990-92
Home Secretary 1992-93
Chancellor of the Exchequer 1993-97…
It could be those last five years as John Major’s chancellor which really worry the opposition about the possible return of Ken Clarke. After all, Gordon Brown precisely followed the big man’s fiscal policy for the first 2 years of the current regime, so splendidly was the Tory economy functioning in the mid-nineties, even while the sleaze boiled and bubbled everywhere else you looked. Clarke’s major problem is that he’s already lost the fight for the leadership, not once but twice, first to Babyface Hague in 1997 and then to ‘the quiet man’ Iain Duncan Smith in 2003. Indeed, on the latter occasion Smith beat Clarke decisively, securing literally twice as many votes from the party faithful, in a poll registering a turnout of an amazing 79%.
And now he’s back again, repackaged, de-Europeanised, minus the cigars (in public at least) but just as jazz jolly and Hush Puppy hearty as he always was. But to face what? Yet more punishment at the hands of the third form, in the shape of David Cameron? Or a serious scragging from the upper fifth, in the guise of David Davies or Malcom Rifkind? The decision by the Tory membership not to change the rules will, curiously, be an advantage to him this time because he’s the only candidate most people in the country have heard of, partly because he’s been in all those jobs and survived, but mainly, and of key import to his advisors, because of his beguiling, un-PC persona, which has been described by one as ‘frank to the point of giving offence’.
Ken Clarke? Packaged? Advised? Come on, keep up: he’s not doing it all on his own, you know. The ambition of those who would be party leaders and Prime Ministers isn’t of the same ilk as you or me at school dreaming of playing for England or being a pop star. This is the senior game, where every radio aside and every smile to the camera is choreographed, considered, noted and notched up. Warmth, that’s what the last three Tory leaders have lacked and that’s where Clarke is going to have his best chance of winning over the shires. Hague was young and bright but had a ghastly voice; Duncan Smith was an army officer promoted into a twilight zone so many light years beyond his capability as to make him invisible, and Howard, well, considering he started his leadership spell portrayed as a fascist vampire, he’s done well to emerge with a completely different image.
Unfortunately the image is that of a bumbling old cardigan wearer, which is precisely where Clarke risks landing up if he doesn’t make just a tiny effort to smarten up. Looking at old footage of young sprightly Clarke in the mid-years of the Thatcher government, he appears positively wealthy, with his dapper figure decked out in dark suits and silk ties.
Now that’s he’s genuinely very wealthy thanks to all the fags he’s helped flog in the Far East, perhaps a return to the image of boardroom star for this wry and brilliant barrister could be just what the Tory party’s spin doctor ordered.