Free from the pressures that are silencing other MPs, the Conservative Party’s great europhile tells TIM WALKER about his meeting with Theresa May and why this is no time for despair.
There would be no messing about if Ken Clarke were prime minister. Boris Johnson would have been sacked by now and the rest of the Brextremists in the cabinet would have been told, in his famously abrupt way, either to put up or shut up.
‘I’m more combative than Mrs May and I wouldn’t have tolerated such a senior figure publicly attacking a preferred policy option of mine,’ Clarke tells me of the foreign secretary’s decision to brand her ideas for a post-Brexit EU customs partnership as ‘crazy.’ ‘I need hardly add that I’m not the prime minister and I’ve no doubt a lot of people are profoundly grateful for that.’
Clarke celebrates his 78th birthday in July and this is his last parliament before he steps down as an MP. He knows he has nothing to lose from speaking truth unto power.
‘I’m certainly not someone who is frightfully interested in whether or not I’m going to be invited to be a parliamentary under-secretary of state at any time in the near future,’ he laughs. ‘I have a constituency that voted Remain and a local association that doesn’t pressure me. My party whips occasionally ask me what I’m going to do, but they know my views and don’t attempt to dissuade me. I might get an angry letter from the odd nut every now and again, but that’s par for the course.
‘I can see other MPs are more inhibited and the weaker ones are terrified of the right-wing press and of their constituency associations, be they right-wing Tory associations or Momentum-dominated Labour ones.’
The PM may not have felt the need to avail herself of the counsel of Lord Heseltine – that other great One Nation Tory – but she has, interestingly, had a recent lengthy meeting with Clarke. ‘She’s very reserved so I rarely get her totally candid views. She is acting out of a sense of duty and is probably having to compromise a lot more than I need to. She’s trying to get the cabinet to rally behind her on policies that would allow free trade with the rest of Europe and also to allow us to have our own trade agreements with other countries.
‘Her problem is she has a dissident group in her cabinet undermining her. They are giving a day-by-day commentaries to the newspapers on every discussion that takes place in cabinet. A number are fanatically trying to pursue a hard-line version of Brexit and seem to think that it won’t damage us to have new tariffs, customs procedures and regulatory differences put up between us and our most important market.
‘Practically all of these individuals regard themselves as leadership candidates, which means they don’t always act coherently. Mrs May is, however, a tough, stubborn lady and there is a limit to quite how far she can sensibly compromise. She is going to eventually have to challenge these people to support a sensible policy on Brexit or leave government.’
The political games infuriate Clarke as he sees how much time they have wasted. ‘Two years after the referendum, we’ve only just got to the outline of a withdrawal agreement. We hardly have any time left to negotiate a hugely complex series of agreements about our future political relationships with Europe on such key issues as defence and security, agriculture, fishing, trade and investment, international policing and so much more.’ For now, Clarke is minded to give May the benefit of the doubt. ‘She’s more patient than me and she believes that rational people should eventually be able to compromise. She wants to produce a White Paper in a few weeks, and, if she manages that, then it will show she has got a result that my own approach probably wouldn’t have achieved.’ Clarke says no one – not even in cabinet – can have any idea how this saga will play out. ‘The plan is to put a withdrawal agreement to the House in the summer, and then, by October, to ask us to approve the political heads of agreement on the long-term negotiated arrangements. Quite what forms those votes will take, and whether Parliament will have control of what happens next if we reject them, is still the subject of amendments that will be made in the Lords to the Withdrawal Bill. I don’t personally think we will have heads of agreement by October, but maybe by the end of the year.
‘We’re committed to leaving legally in March 2019, but it will, in my opinion, take many years after that for all the other new arrangements to be settled. The sooner we get through the present political deadlock on trade and investment and customs, the sooner we can start to develop policies on all the other issues we have with the EU, which I think are going to take us far beyond the present end date of the transitional period in December 2020.’
Clarke senses the public’s exasperation. ‘They cannot understand what is going on as none of this had anything to do with the referendum campaign. They can see the government is not giving enough attention to other serious national issues. It would certainly be very nice if we could at some point soon get back to a more normal atmosphere in Whitehall and Westminster.’
It annoys him that David Cameron – ‘recklessly and for short-term political management reasons’ – chose to put the country in this position in the first place. I ask him if Cameron has been the most disastrous prime minister of his lifetime. ‘Probably not. We had some terrible leadership in the 1960s and 1970s, but of course we don’t know yet how this will end. Cameron’s reputation will, I’m sure, forever be blighted by his decision to call the referendum. ‘Margaret Thatcher used to say that a referendum was the chosen vehicle of a dictator. Mussolini certainly liked them and people only ever push for them when they know there’s no chance of a parliamentary majority.
‘Many now wish they’d done more to resist Cameron’s decision to have one, but both parties accepted it and cheerfully said they’d abide by it. It’s a pity about Jeremy Corbyn. He’s one of the most hardline eurosceptics in the House and that’s why his party is in such a mess, and young people, who initially supported him, are feeling so disillusioned.’
Clarke sees the Windrush scandal as a consequence of Brexit. ‘It became clear during the referendum campaign that immigration – particularly brown and black immigration, by implication – was a fear that was being cynically stirred up by the Leavers. I’ve no doubt that the overwhelming majority in this country is not at all racist and I believe this will be a short-term anxiety.’
May is meanwhile packing hardline Brextremists into the Lords and it looks likely both the principal parties will three-line-whip their people to push the policy through the Commons at every critical juncture. But Clarke is nothing if not a perennial optimist. ‘My faith ultimately is in our elected representatives. We’ve a situation now where they’re passing legislation that most know only too well is against the national interest. I don’t think the government, or opposition, should make any assumptions that they can three-line-whip their MPs to keep on doing that indefinitely.’