Friday, June 08, 2007
Simply The Beast
This piece of mine appears on The Guardian's Comment is Free website.
He's too old. He's too lazy. He sells fags. He would split the party and in any case he's not as popular as people make out.
So the neocon arguments went - in 2001 and 2005 - as to why Ken Clarke should not be Tory leader.
But watching the man they call "the Beast" delivering a stinging attack on Tony Blair's world tour this week - in which he likened the prime minister to a "medieval monarch", who had "decided most things on his sofa for the last 10 years"- showed us exactly what fun and games would have been in store if Clarke had become Tory leader. Am I the only person who thinks it was a minor tragedy that the most talented Tory politician of his generation never got his party's top job?
In both 2001 and 2005, a powerful group of neocons in the Tory party, panic-stricken that it might be led by a man who did not share their passion for following George Bush to the ends of the earth, did all they could to prevent Clarke from becoming leader. Google the names of leading members of the neoconservative firmament with the words "dangers of tobacco" and you don't come up with very much. But when Clarke announced his candidacy, the selling of cigarettes became, for neocons, a crime on a par with sending children up chimneys or being a card-carrying member of the Iraqi Ba'ath party. Then there was the Beast's alleged laziness. My uncle worked with Clarke as a civil servant at the Department of Transport, and regarded him as the most impressive and efficient minister he had ever served under. Lord Tebbit may think otherwise, but for most of us "impressive" and "efficient" don't usually co-exist with sloth.
Even more outlandish was the claim made by the uber-neocon commentator Stephen Pollard, that Clarke's popularity among the British public was a myth propagated by his own supporters - and that New Labour would not fear him a jot. Pollard's assertions were almost immediately contradicted by a Newsnight poll which showed that a Clarke-led Conservative party would leave Gordon Brown with rather more to worry about than whether or not to introduce a Britain Day. For Pollard, the Tories under Clarke would be no more than "a more respectable version of Respect". Ken, it seems, was not only an old, lazy and unpopular drug-pusher, he was also Gorgeous George, mark two.
The neocons were of course desperate that a pro-war interventionist, like David Cameron, David Davis or Liam Fox followed in the footsteps of staunch Pax Americana men William Hague, Iain Duncan-Smith and Michael Howard as party leader. In their determination to stop Clarke, they were ready with their eulogies to David Cameron as soon as the relatively unknown MP for Witney had made his leadership pitch at the 2005 party conference. Cameron, thanks to neocon support in the media and within the party, became the fourth successive Tory leader to slavishly follow the Washington line and, as a result, the party has been unable to hold the government to account over the issue on which it was most vulnerable - Iraq.
A victory for Ken Clarke in either 2001 or 2005 would not only have been good for the Tories - it would have revitalised democracy in Britain. At last we would have had an opposition which - on the most important issue of the day - actually did some opposing.