Pensioner Ken's last gamble

A Kenneth Clarke-David Cameron "dream team" is being touted to stop DavidDavis becoming Tory Party leader. Political Editor Graham Dines considers the prospects if former Chancellor stands in the race to succeed Michael Howard.

A Kenneth Clarke-David Cameron "dream team" is being touted to stop David

Davis becoming Tory Party leader. Political Editor Graham Dines considers the prospects if former Chancellor stands in the race to succeed Michael Howard.

KENNETH Clarke was 65 last month. For most people, that would signal the start of a quiet life of retirement, devoting the remaining time on this earth to the family, hobbies and pastimes.

But the signs are that the President of Nottinghamshire county crick club, Nottingham Forest supporter, jazz fanatic, and renowned birdwatcher may be contemplating one last shot at becoming leader of the Conservative Party.

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He's been rejected twice. In 1997, Margaret Thatcher successfully encouraged MPs to back the young William Hague to stop the Europhile Clarke in the aftermath of the electoral landslide to Labour.

Four years' later, when party members chose Iain Duncan Smith over the EU enthusiast Clarke after Hague had resigned, it looked as if opportunity to take the top job had evaporated.

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With Michael Howard – elected unopposed in 2003 to take over from the sacked IDS – deciding not to hang around after the autumn, the Conservative Party has been plunged into the turmoil of finding its fifth leader in a little over 8 years.

So why should Clarke at 65 want to become leader with the odds already heavily stacked in favour of a fourth consecutive Labour General Election victory in four years time?

Clarke is easily the most popular Conservative among non-Tory Party members, and he knows it.

Clarke also knows he is the one potential leader that Labour fears the most. Match Kenneth Clarke against Gordon Brown – who's likely to be Prime Minister at the election – and Clarke is likely to best the dour Scotsman more times than not.

Clarke knows all this, most commentators recognise it, and the voters like him. Which is probably why Conservative MPs, with their stubborn anti-European hysteria, are almost certain to cast him aside once more if he decides to stand.

Give the Tory Party a field of two and it always picks the loser.

Clarke's Europhile leanings and in particular his support for the euro had been seen as the biggest obstacle standing in the way of him leading the party, which is far more Eurosceptic.

Forget his record as Health and Education Secretaries and his success as Chancellor of the Exchequer in laying the golden foundations for what turned out to be Labour's fiscal policies. Europe is what has always done for Ken.

Yesterday, Clarke yesterday signalled a softening of his robust support for the European single currency, admitting the euro had so far failed to deliver the hoped for improvements in European productivity and living standards.

He said the prospects of Britain signing up for the single currency in the foreseeable future were remote. "I do not think there has been a time when the British could have joined with complete security and confidence. I doubt it is possible for 10 years or more."

He admitted that so far the euro had proved a disappointment to its supporters.

"I thought it would lead to increased productivity, efficiency and living standards and stimulate policy reforms. On that front so far it has been a failure."

And he reaffirmed his view that the new European constitution was effectively dead following its rejection in the French and Dutch referendums. "There is no way of rescuing the treaty although I was in favour and the sooner we can make a reality of economic reforms in terms that are seen by the public as contributing to their economic wellbeing, the better."

Was this veiled promise not to reopen the civil war in the Tory Party over Europe the start of one last leadership bid?

The avuncular Mr Clarke's not saying yet, but by discarding his European blinkers, he has caused excited talk of a "dream team" – Ken the leader, with the brightest prospect by far in the Tory firmament David Cameron as his deputy.

Although supporters of Mr Cameron are reported to have categorically ruled out the two men teaming up, insisting he could become leader in his own right, Tory grandee Lord Heseltine believes the duo are a perfect combination.

Lord Heseltine said he would support Mr Clarke if he stood for the leadership.

"He is head and shoulders ahead of any other candidate. He is incomparably the most popular and most experienced.

"I think Ken is capable of landing punches on this Government in a way I don't see anyone else being able to do.

"David Cameron is an extremely personable guy. He is young but that's no great disadvantage. I would have thought that he might welcome a period very close to the top where he would gain experience from a professional bruiser, which Ken is."

Kenneth Clarke will be aged anywhere between 68 and 70 when the next election is called. If he becomes leader, he will not only need stamina and good health to see him through a gruelling period of years, he will also have to give up is well paid work for the British American Tobacco Company.

It is by no means certain that Clarke will stand. Many "modernising" younger Tories would rather he came out fighting for David Cameron, as the best person to stop leadership favourite David Davis.

Lord Heseltine's support for a Clarke-Cameron ticket may not be entirely helpful to the anti-Davis wing of the Conservative Party.

But what he had to say about the Tories' electoral prospects is self-evidently true. "There is a mountain to climb and to do that in one election is a heck of a task. We could easily be in for a longer haul than that."

The Conservative Party needs to gain 124 seats to obtain an overall majority of just one. With the Tories vanquished from the inner cities and many suburbs and a spent force in Scotland and much of Yorkshire, the North East, North West, the Midlands and Cornwall, whoever becomes leader has to be able to appeal to the lost millions of former Conservatives.

Tory MPs have to have those voters in mind when they choose their leader rather that the die hard Conservatives activists in the Tory heartlands.

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