Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Last One Nation Champion

There's much talk in the airwaves of this Cabinet reshuffle being a "massacre of the moderates", but this is nonsense.  The moderates in the Tory Party were massacred years ago, not so much by any specific leader or reshuffle, but more by the gradual erosion wrought by an off the leash grassroots party which has been selecting Thatcherite true believers to replace retiring One Nationers.  The only real remnant of the creed in the Cameron cabinet was Ken Clarke, and now age has brought him down too.

The retirement of Mr. Clarke is occasioning much comment, amongst the most useful and perceptive of which is this piece by Alex Massie for the Spectator.  He has been a little out on a limb recently, despite his illustrious career, but it is worth reflecting on what the Conservatives have lost from their front line.  Ken Clarke was, first and foremost, one of the very few leading Tories with a positive appeal amongst an overwhelmingly sceptical electorate.  He was, of course, very far from ordinary, this man who went to Cambridge and was elected an MP age 30, but he still managed to exude a character of 'blokeishness'.  His love of jazz, his broad laziness, his fondness for cigars, his refusal to be spun or to engage in political speak; these are the characteristics that made him a formidable politician and one with election appeal.  He was also thoroughly pragmatic, taking on the public sector when necessary - during his stints at Health and Education for instance - but also advocating a working welfare state over tax cuts as a broad principle, contrary to the current majority Conservative obsession with ever trimming of public services.  Clarke, a bit like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, but more moderately than both, also managed to stand out amongst politicians as a fully fledged, if flawed, member of the human race.  All three of those characters speak to the public's willingness to hear politicians "unspun", and are an object lesson to the new generation of not reverting to anaemic political speak whenever they're asked awakward questions.

It was the Conservative Party's loss that it failed to elect Clarke to the leadership on three occasions.  He lost out to William Hague after the 1997 massacre, and many might judge that he would have had his most significant impact at that time.  When he lost again to Iain Duncan Smith after the 2001 election, in the first leadership election to be decided by party members, it was clear this time that the party grassroots had turned in a distinctively right-wing direction, and Europe was the key to both Clarke's political persona and the party membership's.  Sadly, they were keys to two vastly different locks, and Clarke's fate was effectively sealed.  His appointment to the Cabinet by David cameron - apparently at George Osborne's suggestion - was a wise one, and his term as Justice Secretary looks rather good when set against the somewhat hamfisted tenure of his successor.  But he was increasingly out of step with the Conservatives, derided as the fifth Lib Dem member of the cabinet, and his brand of Conservative appeal was no longer popular with the party at large, even if it would always prove more popular amongst the electorate than any alternative.

Ken Clarke may be confined to that "one of the best prime ministers we never had" list, but his contribution to British politics and public service has been immense, and stands comparison with any modern politician of whatever office.  When the Tories discover Clarke-ite Conservatism again, they may also discover an election winning streak that has eluded them for roughly the same period that Clarke has been out of favour!

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