‘It’s absurd to say 16m who voted Remain have no voice’
Curiouser and curiouser, says Ken Clarke: “It does feel as though we have fallen down a rabbit hole. I won’t name who is the White Rabbit or the Red Queen but politics at the moment are an unrealistic fairyland.”
The former cabinet minister and elder statesman has suddenly found himself the lone rebel in his party, the only Tory to vote against triggering Article 50. For him the past few months have not been a wonderland but a wasteland. After an impassioned speech against the Brexit bill this week, he takes comfort from the fact that walking down the street he is accosted by well-wishers but insists: “You shouldn’t get carried away by the kind things that people keep saying, because the other person who just walked past may not agree at all.”
It must have been lonely being the only Tory rebelling in the Commons this week. “The chief whip gave me a wink when I went through but he was obviously relieved it was just me. I’m a naturally cheerful chap but there was sadness, and also on the night of the referendum when I heard the results coming in from Hartlepool and Sunderland and it was obvious we were going to leave.”
After almost 50 years at the front line of politics, the former chancellor, health, education and home secretary has never wavered in his pro-European views. His parliamentary career has coincided almost exactly with the beginning and end of Britain’s membership of the EU.
“It’s easy to get nostalgic and start looking through rose-tinted glasses about what it was like when you started but politics has never been a wholly rational process,” he says.
Although he holds no personal grudge against the arch-Eurosceptics – “Bill Cash and I get on very well; I know where they come from” – he always thought they were on the fringe. Now they are the establishment. “Ever since the referendum I find myself in the most peculiar situation where the hardcore right wing of the Conservative Party is running the country,” he says. “These people have been the pain-in-the-neck rebels for so long. Now they are driving ministers – most of whom don’t believe in it – to deliver the new Jerusalem.”
He isn’t angry with those Remainers who voted to trigger Article 50. “When I came into the Commons, like most new MPs, I was ambitious. Would I have voted against the party on a key vote? I tell myself I would but it is easier said than done.”
The only thing he will not be told is that he has done something undemocratic. “It’s absurd to say that the 16 million who voted [to remain] should no longer have a voice in parliament and have lost their right to be represented.”
Having opposed the referendum from the start he never felt bound by its result. “I hope I don’t live ever to see another referendum. I just think it’s silly to have such a complex issue put to one day’s Yes-No vote.”
There is too much “triumphalism” among the Brexiteers criticising the “Remoaners”, he feels. “It’s partly because they can’t believe they have won, they are desperately eager to crack on and are still pinching themselves.” Now 76, Mr Clarke worries about the increasingly aggressive tone of politics. “Europe has always had this damaging effect . . . there are more angry people. It is far too late for me in my life to come to terms with Twitter or Facebook. I am aware though of the personal insults, which are quite intense. There has always been a weird fringe of people but social media allows these sad characters in their bedsits to hurl abuse at anyone whom they disagree with.”
He won’t call the Conservative party nasty, but he believes it is lost. “I don’t think the Tory party knows where it is going now. We have taken up all these positions since June 23 but they don’t hang together. The bit that worries me is the anti-foreigner, anti-immigrant bit. The overwhelming majority of British people are not xenophobic or racist but there are more around than there used to be.”
In his speech to parliament this week he called the government’s vision of post-Brexit Britain a fantasy that would amaze Enoch Powell, who warned of “rivers of blood” in a controversial anti-immigration speech.
“I knew Enoch moderately well . . . If he came back he would be absolutely thrilled to find the whole Conservative Party was swearing that it was leaving the European Union and going on about controlling the number of foreigners coming in.”
He almost feels sorry for Theresa May. “It’s not her fault. Three weeks after the referendum she finds out she is prime minister in bizarre, comic circumstances after a Jacobean tragedy when she finds herself the only person still standing on the stage. So she has taken a rather rigid view that she must deliver Brexit and because she spent six years in the Home Office where she failed to deliver the immigration targets, she has become rather fixated on the anti-immigrant bit of it.” But he has no such sympathy for David Cameron, who took the “cavalier” decision to call the referendum.
“I think history will take a very harsh view of him and his government,” he says.“When you look back he didn’t achieve much. The one big achievement was that the coalition saved the country from financial collapse.
“The difficulty with David was that it was impossible to work out what his beliefs were. I couldn’t work out why he was doing this apart from enjoying being prime minister. He is a bit of a chancer. He had obviously had a smooth political ascent to the top. I don’t think he thought he might lose the referendum until the night of the count. It must have been a complete shock to him. It’s a dreadful way to finish off a government and a political career.”
All his life, Mr Clarke says, “I have been living in a Conservative Party where my wing of the party is in the majority, but the leadership is run ragged by the right-wingers. They are terrified of them. In the end Cameron gave in, he thought he could outwit them. His aim in the referendum was to shut them up.” Now Mrs May has to pick up the pieces. “If she succeeds . . . she will start getting into the list of great prime ministers, and if she fails she will be blamed and be in the Tony Blair-David Cameron class of people who were a disaster.”
The former chancellor thinks the answer will be clear within three or four years. “I compare it to the Iraq war. That was the last time I stuck my neck out in supporting a really unpopular cause – 70 per cent of the British public were in favour of the invasion and most of the Conservative Party was in a patriotic fury but I aligned with Robin Cook in opposing the war. Within 12 months you couldn’t meet a member of the public who had ever known anybody who was in favour of it.
If Brexit turns out to be an economic disaster, public opinion will instantly turn and people “won’t blame their fellow citizens for voting in the referendum, they will blame the government of the day”, he says.
Mr Clarke once described Mrs May as a “bloody difficult woman” but he thinks that might be useful in the coming months. “Right now whoever is in charge has got to be bloody difficult with such a curious collection of colleagues. She’s a highly intelligent, sensible Tory lady with no-nonsense views.”
Many people felt that the prime minister was not bloody difficult enough with Donald Trump. Mr Clarke thinks it was unfortunate that she was the first world leader to meet “one of the nastiest American presidents we’ve had elected for a very long time who keeps propounding views which are wholly unacceptable to about 90 per cent of the British public”.
In his view she felt rushed into the visit by Brexit. “It’s this whole ‘new global opportunities thing’ which has led her into this rather over-hasty desire to go out and show how Britain’s now going to be welcomed on a great world stage,” he says. “All this trying to get instant rapport in these early mad stages of the Trump presidency is a mixed blessing really. To suddenly realise he likes golden lifts so perhaps he’ll like the bling at Buckingham Palace is a bit simplistic.”
Mrs May should have been quicker to condemn the ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries, he insists. “It’s appalling. The danger is it just helps jihadists recruiting among young Muslims. I don’t understand the hesitation in denouncing it. It’s inconceivable that any British politician could have thought that this was a sensible thing to do.”
Mr Clarke will stand down as MP for Rushcliffe at the next election. “My children keep asking me what I’m going to do. There will be my cricket, my football but birdwatching, unfortunately, I can’t do so much of because I’m getting lame.”
His wife, Gillian, was by his side throughout almost his entire career, encouraging him to stand up for what he believed in. She died in 2015 and he is still clearly devastated, uncharacteristically stumbling over his words when we ask about her influence. “I’m a rather private man. If you’re not careful you get sentimental,” he says. “Looking back it always bears on to me how much she just accepted that our whole life was going to be dominated by my politics. I wonder whether it ever crossed her mind to have a real go at me to pack it up but she never did.”
Having served in the cabinets of three prime ministers, Mr Clarke is not a natural rebel. At the end of our interview he decides not to go into the Commons chamber because he is wearing red corduroy trousers rather than a suit. But he thought of Gillian as he voted against the government this week. “She made me look like a Eurosceptic,” he says, chuckling. “The speech she would have endorsed in spades. That would have had her total approval. I never remotely thought of doing anything else.”
Kenneth Harry Clarke Curriculum vitae
Born July 2, 1940
Education Nottingham High School; Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, where he was the chairman of the Conservative Association and president of the union Career
He was a barrister before being elected the MP for Rushcliffe in 1970
He was health secretary under Margaret Thatcher; education secretary, home secretary and chancellor under John Major; then justice secretary and minister without portfolio under David Cameron
He was an unsuccessful candidate for the Tory leadership in 1997, 2001 and 2005
Family Married to Gillian for 51 years until her death in 2015. He has one son and one daughter