Allan Massie: Ken Clarke will leave a large gap

Ken Clarke, though undoubtedly very clever, appeared to be a pretty ordinary bloke. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Ken Clarke, though undoubtedly very clever, appeared to be a pretty ordinary bloke. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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The loss of Ken Clarke from the Cabinet is one to regret as he was perhaps the only ‘ordinary’ Tory left, writes Allan Massie

It’s several years since Ken Clarke joined that select club of best Tory prime ministers we never had, alongside Rab Butler and Iain Macleod. Now he has chosen to leave the Cabinet, ending a ministerial career that stretches back to a time when David Cameron and George Osborne were learning to read.

Actually, though Clarke was a PPS within a year or so of being elected to the Commons in 1970, his advance was slow in the early Thatcher years. He had committed the crime of being loyal to her predecessor, Ted Heath. It was only his evident ability, his lawyer’s ability to master a brief, and his talent for debate that enabled him to shed the Heathite stigma. Eventually Mrs Thatcher brought him into the Cabinet even though she never came to regard him as “one of us”.

Clarke belongs to a group of Tories, mostly educated at Cambridge in the early 1960s, who did as much as Margaret Thatcher herself to change the character of the party. Whereas Harold Macmillan’s Cabinets (1956-63) had been drawn mostly from the traditional governing class – stuffed to the gills with Etonians, you might say – Clarke and others of his generation such as Michael Howard, Chris Patten, Norman Fowler, Malcolm Rifkind and Norman Lamont were bright middle-class boys, good at passing exams. (John Major, who, alone among them, reached the top of the tree, came from a family background hard to classify and was one of the five 20th century prime ministers not to have had a university education.)

Clarke & Co were socially and, for the most part, economically, liberal, products of state education (Nottingham High School in Clarke’s case), comfortable with the welfare state but quite prepared to reform it so long as the basic principles, such as the NHS being free at the point of delivery, were maintained. They were also enthusiastic pro-Europeans, partly because they belonged to the immediate post-war generation that regarded European union as a noble cause, the means by which differing national interests might be resolved round the table rather than on the battlefield, partly because it seemed obvious in their youth that only membership of what was then the EEC (European Economic Community) could cure what was known as “the British disease” of economic stagnation, low growth and dreadful industrial relations.

They were of course quite right. Britain’s economic recovery owed at least as much to membership of the European Community (later Union) as to Thatcherite reforms of industrial law, privatisation and lower taxes.

Clarke has remained admirably true to his pro-European beliefs – one cannot doubt that he will campaign vigorously in favour of remaining in the EU if we have an in-out referendum. If he had been prepared to modify his views and make Euro-sceptical noises, he would certainly have been Tory leader. It is to his credit, as a man of honour, that he declined to do so. The party must take him on his own terms or not at all. It chose the latter option, mistakenly.

I daresay there would have been a Tory majority government if Clarke had become leader rather than Cameron in 2005. But it wasn’t to be: the European issue has been driving the Tory party mad for years.

As health minister, his attempts to improve the efficiency of the NHS brought him trouble with the medical establishment. The British Medical Association even ran an advertisement: “What do you call a man who won’t listen to his doctor? Answer: Kenneth Clarke.”

Actually one of his attractions was that he did always look like a man who ignored any advice that came from his own doctor. Twenty-five years ago, the political commentator, Edward Pearce wrote that Clarke’s “diet is outrageous: he is a beer, cigarettes and fried-bread man and to hell with the consequences”. Later he moved on to cigars, while continuing to spend evenings in jazz clubs (at least until the smoking ban came into force). His only known fresh-air pursuits have been bird-watching and days at the cricket (especially at Trent Bridge in his own constituency).

All this has helped to make him that rarity among modern politicians, a recognisable human being with a range of ordinary interests. He was of course a career politician, but one who nevertheless managed to convey the impression – doubtless a true one – that politics was only one part of his life. Clearly a very clever man, he nevertheless always seemed to be an ordinary bloke also.

Clarke’s ability was never in doubt, which is why Margaret Thatcher overcame her doubts about him and gave him an important job. He went on to be a notably successful Chancellor of the Exchequer in John Major‘s government, working loyally and harmoniously with his prime minister and leaving the public finances in a healthy state for his successor, Gordon Brown. He has always been an effective Commons performer and – what is nowadays at least as important – effective on radio and television. I doubt if he has been comfortable in today’s Tory party, finding himself more at one with Liberal Democrats in the coalition than with some of his Tory colleagues.

Clarke’s generation of Tories made the party seem less remote from the experiences of their constituents than is the case today. His own father was a colliery electrician who later owned a jeweller’s shop. Very few of his generation of the liberal Bow Group Tories were rich men in their own right, as so many of today’s politicians, and not only in the Tory Party, are. They mostly attended city day schools – some grammar schools, others independent ones where pupils in those days nevertheless came from a fairly wide range of backgrounds. So they had some idea of how other people live.

It appears that Clarke is not retiring from politics or even from the House of Commons. Nevertheless his leaving the Cabinet marks the end of an era, the end, sadly as it may seem, of a time when politicians were more concerned with policies than with presentation. This reshuffle is directed first at the media, then at next year’s general election. Government will take second place to news-management and campaigning – just as it has done here in Scotland since the date of our independence referendum was announced.