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Farewell Ken Clarke, last of the Tory Big Beasts

14 July 2014

7:24 PM

14 July 2014

7:24 PM

But for Europe, eh? It is a mark of how thoroughly the European issue has poisoned Tory waters that many party activists – and MPs – will be celebrating the end of Ken Clarke’s ministerial career tonight. Not before time, many of them will doubtless froth.

Well, maybe. But it bears remembering that the Tories who hated Clarke the most tend, more often than not, to be the Tories the public hates most. The kind of Conservatives good at losing elections and rather less good at winning them.

That does not mean Clarke was always right or that his judgement was necessarily routinely sound. Nevertheless it is something to be kept in mind. Would the Conservatives have been better or worse off these past 20 years with more or with fewer politicians like Ken Clarke? I think the answer to that is obvious, though I do not expect everyone to agree.

But what a career it has been. Forty four years an MP. Successively, Paymaster General, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State for Health, Secretary of State for Education, Home Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice and, finally and a little sadly, Minister without Portfolio.

They don’t make careers like that very often or even, perhaps, any more. Only churls can deny that. There are fewer Big Beasts in the Westminster jungle these days and it may just be that Clarke is just about the last of them. An ancient, dying breed.

Good riddance, daft Tories will scoff. He was a wet once and then there was the Europe thing. A traitor in Tory clothing, to some. Never to be forgiven for telling the Lady her time was up; never to be forgiven for his enthusiasm for the European idea.

But he was right about the blessed Margaret and a broader Tory party might find it easier to forgive him his apparent European heresies. I know that’s impossible for the monomaniacs who think Europe the biggest – even only – issue of our time but – and this is an awkward truth – most people aren’t that kind of monomaniac. Most people, in fact, look at the euro-obsessed wing of the Tory party and think it’s still amply populated by cranks and nutcases.


Sometimes this is unfair but Ken Clarke’s wing of the Tory party did less to put, and then keep, the party in opposition than did those who hated him most.

In any case, Europe, it has always seemed to me, should be an issue upon which people could and should respectfully disagree. It ought not to be a kind of litmus test for conservative purity. Because a party that insists upon too many such tests soon risks becoming a clique, not a party at all.

Only odd people could look at Clarke and conclude he was ever anything other than a conservative and a Tory. (There are, of course, plenty of odd people.)

Still, in an age in which the public wonders about all these bright young (or youngish) things who seem so smart yet sometimes also seem to know so little about life as it is actually lived there’s some value to having someone like Ken Clarke around. And not just because of the institutional memory gained from thirty years at the forefront of political life (though that’s important too).

Sure, Clarke was an MP from the age of 30 but people responded to him because they knew that though they might differ on any number of issues he was recognisably a human kind of being. He had bottom. And a hinterland. The jazz and the ale and the cricket and the hush puppies and the slovenly, even lazy, appearance all actually mattered. Because they were real. It gave Clarke a precious commodity: the ability to be listened to.

Not that he was a cuddly bear. On the contrary, Clarke was a happy warrior. At health and at education he was a knuckleduster-wearing tribune of reform. It was a long time ago, so perhaps people have forgotten how much the left hated him.

He was a good, still under-rated, Chancellor too. Let’s just say that comparisons with his immediate predecessor and his successor do not leave Clarke looking bad.

Could he have led the Tory party? In a different time, perhaps. Could he have led it successfully in his own time? Probably not. The European gulf had become too wide to be bridged. It would have been a disaster though, it is worth pointing out, only a different kind of disaster to those that befell the Tories anyway. How, in any case, could you lead a party that thought IDS a grand idea?

The last years were poor things as Clarke was sidelined by his younger colleagues. Whatever his shortcomings he might have avoided some of the mis-steps made by his successor as Lord Chancellor.

Sometimes, however, you get the sense that some parts of the Tory party these days think there’s something weak or feeble about Conservatism that comes with a human – even humane – face. They are wrong about that, however. Decency is a useful, valuable commodity.  It helps you earn respect and respect helps get you a hearing.

That need not be confused with a sense of intellectual frailty or a limp approach to urgent policy questions. Sometimes I think that some Tories still make this mistake too. If being liked, or at least respected by the public, is not enough it is at least a useful start.

Whatever. Ken Clarke’s race is run now but by any reasonable standards he has enjoyed a remarkable career of a sort that is no longer, it seems, fashionable. He has done his party and, more importantly, his country some service and it is a career that deserves to be remembered if only because it seems a type that we will not see too often again.


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Show comments
  • global city

    As ‘The European idea’ solidified into the European project, with all of the costs and losses materialising, Clarke maintained his woolly support for ‘the idea’.

    The ‘European idea’ was only ever a nonsense, like ‘world peace’ or ‘fairness’. hardened into policy, the need for rigid anti democratic impositions became clear. ken Clarke was basically the Westminster version of a Greenham Common protester.

  • global city

    Clarke formed his opinions in the late 50s’, in his youth and has never changed a single one since.

    What was that famous quote of Muhammed Ali’s?

  • Ridcully

    “Europe, it has always seemed to me, should be an issue upon which people could and should respectfully disagree.”
    Absolutely. So what do you think about the fact that Clarke once stated that only “headbangers” would oppose the Euro?

  • Augustus

    Ken Clarke was one of a group of weak, bitter and cowardly lefty Conservatives (another was Chris Patten) who were the most active in their intention to knife Mrs Thatcher in the back.

    • RobertC

      We still produce cars in Britain, soon to be the top European producer(?), only because MrsT realised that the old centres of car manufacturing were unable to respond to the new economic order.

      So much needed to change. Ironically, the Trade Unions still thought we had an empire to which we could sell our overpriced goods!

      If more of her Cabinets had backed her, or provided positive alternatives, rather than siding with the unions and being generally indifferent, obstinate even, to change, there would have been more successes at the time. Instead, they, including KC, thought that they could share in the economic gain while avoiding the political pain. They did, until the tipping point in 1990, and then the Wets were left soaking and the EEC/EC/EU swamped us!

  • Hugh

    Whatever he once was he’d become insufferably complacent and pleased with himself. Most media appearances recently have been embarassing and more often than not caused problems for the party. You don’t have to be a UKIP member to think his time was up some while ago.

  • Mark McIntyre

    Never trusted this Nottinghamian. Signed – one time Derbian !


    There is a very big shuffle going on and a very big exodus with some of
    the biggest names. Is this anything at all to do with any of these being
    associated with paedo cover ups in the past or even to some possibly
    being party to actual abuse itself?

  • Damon

    Excellent article. I didn’t wholly agree with Ken about Europe, but if nothing else, he deserves to be remembered as an outstanding Chancellor who reinforced the economic advances made under Thatcher. He was also a manifestly decent bloke: a strikingly unusual attribute among parliamentarians, and indeed, among people.

  • Shazza

    Dear Mr Massie,

    This is totally off topic but I would really appreciate a reply to this.

    At the beginning of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ you were very scathing of Glenn Beck’s prediction that this was no ‘Spring’ but a foretaste of mayhem across the ME, the eventual establishment of a Caliphate and real trouble for Israel.

    He also warned of Russian aggression in Eastern Europe.

    What is your reaction now to the events that have taken place since you ridiculed Mr Beck?

    I do not expect this post to remain in situ for very long.


  • Bel-Shammaroth

    Ken Clarke was the only Chancellor since Lawson who had a grasp of tax policy.

  • bobby_r

    Alex Massie consumes too much BBC/Guardian output.. his dismissal and obvious dislike of EU-sceptics is clear from many of his pieces.

    • the viceroy’s gin

      You really shouldn’t read any of that troll’s nonsense. Just go straight to the comments section. It’s far more efficient, and you miss nothing of value .

  • edlancey

    dancing off into the night with Hague.

  • goatmince

    A minister without portfolio leaves to live a life without portfolio.
    The indigenous plebiscite is gobsmacked and overwhelmed by so much sudden change. How anyone would ‘celebrate the end of’ someone’s career is beyond me. Reporting this one but not the others is perhaps a sign that some others losing their positions tonight is by far the bigger and more rewarding jolly.

    • the viceroy’s gin

      …again, that’s a sheep and not a goat, you thick as a plank sockpuppet commander.

      • goatmince

        Angelina Merkel commanded me to write this joyful piece.

        • the viceroy’s gin

          …make that two planks.

          • goatmince

            … never has the position of foreign secretary been more disgraced than by this thick plank.
            Observe the deliberate omission of capital letters.

            • the viceroy’s gin

              …he did everything you socialist nutters wanted, and your army of sockpuppets.

              …make that three planks.

              • goatmince

                Did he? So one of those planks is for you.

                • the viceroy’s gin

                  Yes, he did. Best say thanks to your fellow socialist nutter.

                  …make that four planks. Your stupidity is getting environmentally unsound, lad.

                • goatmince

                  Jean-Yves De Rien runs defence in France, Ursula von der Leyen (born 1958 in Brussels) in Germany.

                  Go on, lad, sell us your ‘get the old men out to be replaced by young women’ pseudo-bull. Make us all laugh, again.

                • the viceroy’s gin

                  Can any other of you socialist nutters translate this nutter’s gibberish?

                • goatmince

                  Let me try …

                  The Secretary of State for Flooding and Monsanto has also been let go. Our future green Monarch will surely welcome this news.

                • the viceroy’s gin

                  We’ll need you socialist nutters to get a wiggle on with this nutter’s translations, apparently.

                • goatmince

                  Liam Fox back in town? In your town living on blatant incompetence and nepotism perhaps, not in mine.

                • the viceroy’s gin

                  Quick now with that translator… before this socialist nutter deforests the continent.

                • goatmince

                  It would appear I am bang on the money as ever, way before you could even think about placing your bets. Now go away and sulk – losers like you will be used to that by now.

                • the viceroy’s gin

                  No, I fear this newest gibberish would withstand even the most skilled translating efforts, folks.

                • goatmince

                  Oi, betfreddy – sulk now will you. We want to hear you whinge. The public demand it.

                • Wessex Man

                  Why on earth are you bothering to reply to ‘Billy no mates?’

  • Smithersjones2013

    In other news Hague is standing down!

    • the viceroy’s gin

      …to spend more time with his SpA.. er.. that is… his family?

      • HookesLaw

        Ah yes the family. No doubt warm hearted as you are you will be remembering his wifes several miscarriages next.
        Crawl back under your rancid stone, better still take the next rocket off the planet.

        • the viceroy’s gin

          …well, your boy Willy and his SpA… er.. his acquaintance certainly didn’t remember the miscarriages when they were on holiday without her, lad, sharing a room.

  • Smithersjones2013

    Putting aside Ken’s passion; for the Euro and ever closer Union It only goes to show how far Massie has his head stuck up his own (or is its Kens’) orifice that he overlooks that Clarke’s two greatest claims to fame are that as Chancellor he started the insane profligacy of the Treasury’s borrow and spend lunacy borrowing at a far faster rate than Gordon Brown did and as Home Secretary he implemented the sentencing reforms which introduced revolving door prison sentences which in turn led to the prisons number doubling to the current unsustainable levels.

    Now as for :

    But he was right about the blessed Margaret and a broader Tory party
    might find it easier to forgive him his apparent european heresies.

    Really?. The Tory party has never recovered from that self-serving piece of betrayal and has been dysfunctional and divided ever since, not forgetting that the subsequent Major government destroyed the legacy of the Thatcher years disaffecting almost 5 MILLION voters most of whom have never returned to the party resulting in the rotten Government of Tony Blair being re-elected in 2001 and 2005 despite getting lowest votes of any returned government in modern UK political history.

    Massie may comfort himself in his delusions but the reality is that as one of the ‘November Criminals’, Clarke was a player in the most self-destructive and damaging act by a group of Tories ever perpetrated on the Conservative Party!

    Of course then there is the irony of a former Health secretary sitting on the Board of BAT, his drinking and his views on rape. How’s that for a toxic Tory?

    The sooner that deranged old dinosaur is put out to grass permanently the better. He is everything that is wrong with the Tory Party

  • Conway

    Has the spectator (sic) stopped using capital letters? It’s Europe and European. Are you also going to write ‘the eu’?

  • CraigStrachan

    I recall Clarke and Redwood put their disagreements over Europe aside, in the interest of furthering their ambitions, forming a dream ticket for the leadership post-Major. What a nightmare that would have been. Just as well Hague saw them off.


    • Wessex Man

      ah the Hague years so full of joy for the Tories.

  • flippit

    Agree absolutely. I think he’s great, says it like it is, in his mind, and its a very clever mind.

  • Amir
    • P_S_W


  • The Masked Marvel

    Ah, “the public”. Anyone who hates the kind of Tory who is glad to see the back of Clarke was never going to vote for another Tory Government anyway. This is just another in an endless barrage of articles trying to convince everyone that the best way for Conservatives to get elected is to move ever further to the Left.

    No thanks.

    • McClane

      I am glad to see the back of Ken Clarke. I would vote for a Tory government. My problem is, the Conservative Party doesn’t want me to vote for them.

  • Brian K

    The man who advocated Maastrict but couldn’t be bothered to read it, presumably on the basis that if it comes from Brussels it must be good!

  • Chris lancashire

    An outstanding servant of the UK, a decent man and a fine politician.

    • The_Missing_Think


  • Denis_Cooper

    Good riddance to the traitor.

    Oh, but we probably won’t be rid of him, will we?

    Not while he is still alive, like those other traitors Heseltine and Major.

    • HookesLaw

      You are the traitor – bigots like you propose to let in Europhile labour led by a crypto-marxist.
      In your case you are a nasty bigoted traitor.

      • Colonel Mustard

        No, Cameron will be to blame for that.

        • Ooh!MePurse!

          No, anyone who wastes their vote on Ukip will be to blame for that appalling outcome.

          • Smithersjones2013

            Oh for gods sake how many times do you idiots need to be told. The big shift of voters at this general election are those former Libdems voters who fled to Labour in horror at the thought of their Nick Clegg fornicating with Cameron.

            Cameron was already beaten in the 2015 election two years before the rise of UKIP and if every single Kipper in the country voted Tory (and the majority will not) Cameron would still lose because of those former Libdems

            Its the act of coalition that will defeat the Tories and bleating about UKIP just shows how deluded and misdirected Tories are!

            Now please do stop trying to associate UKIP voters with the Tory party because we have our reputations to think of and don’t want them sullied by people thinking we are Tories!

          • Wessex Man

            It’s not wasting your vote it’s refreshing British Politics in a way that it hasn’t been for decades. The only way to let Labour in is to vote Tory or Lib/dums. Now go and get the kettle on Comrade!

          • Colonel Mustard

            Cameron has been a disaster for conservatism in Britain.

      • Wessex Man

        You are one sad case Hooky babe, Clarke, Heseltine, Major, Willets should have never been in Cameron’s Party they are very wet Lib/dums!

        • the viceroy’s gin

          …so’s Dave, for that matter.

          • Wessex Man

            well yes I’ll grant you that but He can now pretend to be a Tory ans act like one for a few months without Clarke constantly sniping at him, now if only he could do the same with Vince and Nick.

      • John Dalton

        Ah Cameron’s little troll chucking the bigot word around again. Tool.

  • telemachus

    Well, maybe. But it bears remembering that the Tories who hated Clarke the most tend, more often than not, to be the Tories the public hates most.

    • Kitty MLB

      Vince our anti-business secretary could get a job with your
      bunch and Ken is obviously a yoghurt knitting tree hugging
      EU loving Lib Dem…they both should be honest.

    • Kitty MLB

      “We could find a job for next May”
      Such delusions wasp, such delusions.

  • Lady Magdalene

    Clarke wanted us in the Euro and still claims that we should join.
    He and his pro-EU cronies are responsible for getting rid of the most successful post-war Conservative Leader and for trapping us in the anti-democratic and failing EU.

    Good riddance. It’s a shame his services weren’t disposed of 20 years ago.

    • Alexsandr

      he was so wrong on the Euro, and I think he will be proven wrong on the EU too.
      and his interview on Toady after the euro elections this year were the most patronising waffle.

      • beat_the_bush

        Nothing is quite as patronising as a Europhobe trying to declare who is a “traitor” and who is not.

        • Tim Baker

          read the Lisbon treaty

    • Wessex Man

      My Lady you are so right yet again, Clarke and his croonies are the main reason the Tory party are floundering. I don’t think David Cameron will have such a boring cabinet now.

    • John Dalton


  • andagain

    A man from the days when Conservatives wanted to win elections,and avoid the purity of opposition. A man out of his time.

    • HookesLaw

      An appropriate point when you consider the usual rantings of the fetid nutjobs on here.

      • Smithersjones2013

        Of which you are the prime example!!!!!!

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