A warning: Ken Clarke, Conservative MP for Rushcliffe since 1970 and former cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher, likes to answer questions, just not necessarily the questions asked of him. He also seems to like ragging on ‘the mainstream media’.
When I asked him to identify the most volatile politician in the Conservative party, he chose to take a pop shot at the media. Clarke lamented that, “if you look at the British media, they do not report any of the issues being debated by parliamentarians, nor in any serious way any of the issues being negotiated by the [Brexit] negotiators. And when I get interviewed by mainstream media, they ask me: ‘how long is Theresa going to last as Prime Minister?’. They’re convinced that their viewers are not following the terms of the debate about the actual withdrawal and that the bulk of their viewers wouldn’t know what the Single Market was, nor the Customs Union, because nobody has ever explained it to them.” Mr Clarke regrets that “if you make a personal remark about Boris that’s the only thing that will be reported. Throughout the referendum, my arguments on the benefits of being in the European Union went totally unreported. Personal remarks about Boris and David Cameron were the only things that made the national news.” He has quite a long trail of such personal remarks. He notoriously called Theresa May “a bloody difficult woman”. Clarke has also said that with Michael Gove “as prime minister we’d go to war with at least three countries at once”, but that at least “[Gove] did us all a favour by getting rid of Boris. The idea of Boris as prime minister is ridiculous.” When I reminded him that he had form for supplying the very soundbites he resents, he laughed.
When I asked how the Conservative Party could consider themselves an honest broker on Northern Ireland given that the Conservatives have gotten into bed with the DUP, and appointed Karen Bradley who wasn’t aware when she became Northern Ireland Secretary that the Northern Irish voted along constitutional lines, Clarke returned to snark about the mainstream media: “I think the point about Karen is just ridiculous.” Clarke complained that “it’s a parody of what [Bradley] said. And again, it’s the same bloody nonsense that fills up the newspapers.” After a moment’s pause he observed that: “This is sounding a bit like Donald Trump.” After comparing himself to the least savoury character in western politics, he returned to my question: “The DUP are entitled to take advantage of the mathematical position that an inconclusive election has put them into. And I’ve dealt with the old Ian Paisley and the DUP for many years and they’re difficult customers to deal with, and a little unpredictable sometimes; we’ve got to be careful not to give the DUP excessive power despite their control of votes in the party.”
Clarke then, unprompted, urged that “parliament should take more control of what’s going on. The views on Europe, in particular, in parliament, cut across parties, because both parties are divided. But the majority of members of parliament from all parties, a large majority, are pro- European. And if that majority would only assert itself, and influence the ultra-Eurosceptic left-wing leadership of the Labour party and the leadership of the Conservative party, which is overinfluenced by its ultra-right-wing nationalist wing, then parliament could help everybody make some progress towards a sensible conclusion that would minimise the consequences of this disastrous decision to leave the European Union.”
I asked Clarke what kind of future he saw for Europhiles within a Conservative party that has been hijacked by these ultra-right-wing nationalists. He warned that “anybody who […] claims that they know confidently what’s going to happen in British politics generally in the next six months is deceiving themselves. I’ve never known a bigger shambles, and a bigger period of uncertainty and confusion. Both of the parties are completely shattered and divided by the European issue, and in both cases they have been divided for thirty years, but never so much as this, and everything will depend on the outcome of leaving. If we do leave. And then, how the political climate settles down and gets back to some kind of normality afterwards. So, not only is the future of Britain’s political and economic relationship with the rest of the world at the moment in total doubt, so is the future of the two major parties.”
Clarke was keen to compare and contrast Britain with the rest of Europe: “In most other European countries, the big, broad-ranging centre-right and centre-left parties have collapsed and have lost their mass following and have been replaced by more populist, more specific little parties of right and left. Our electoral system stops that happening. Whether, or how our present system will resume its normal course, is simply too soon to say.” Clarke justified his continued presence in a party that increasingly seems hostile to his politics by asserting that: “Broadly my views have been the mainstream views of the Conservative Party for the first fifty years of my membership […] I don’t always agree with the party. [But] I’m an economic liberal, a social liberal, internationalist, ‘one nation’ Tory; that’s been mainstream Conservative politics. I now find myself a rather fringe rebel since this opinion poll two and a half years ago [the Brexit referendum], which too many of the others agreed to sign up to although they didn’t agree with the result. And it’s causing such confusion. I can’t clearly predict what state the Conservative Party, nor the Labour Party, nor any other party, is going to be in, in say two or three years’ time, if this parliament lasts that long.”
Given the recent Brexit turmoil, this seems unlikely.