Ken Clarke is going to stand for the leadership of the Conservative party. That is the hard, hot, agenda-changing news here in Westminster as the third week in August stretches to its sultry close. One word of caution must accompany this disclosure. Clarke will stand only if proposed changes to the Tory leadership rules, due to be ratified at a meeting of a ‘constitutional college’ on 27 September, are voted through. It is intended that this meeting will take the power to elect the leader away from the party membership and give it back to MPs. Ken Clarke remembers how he enjoyed a majority among his parliamentary colleagues back in 2001 but was nevertheless heavily defeated by the membership. He has told friends that he feels little enthusiasm for repeating that experience.
Tory MPs (with the exception of Clarke, who has just returned from a bird-watching holiday in East Germany’s Mecklenburg Lakes: he enjoyed the rare and privileged experience of watching a white-faced eagle) are on holiday this weekend. But the phones are buzzing from villas or gites from Toulouse to Siena just as meaningfully as if Parliament were sitting. It will be instantly acknowledged in those modish locations that the fact of the Clarke candidacy has changed the geography of the leadership contest, and created a fatal tension in rival camps.
Ken Clarke’s late arrival on the scene is grim news for Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the only Conservative MP so far officially to announce his candidacy. Sir Malcolm did his cause much good with a weekend interview in the Sunday Telegraph. His sensible tone compared favourably with the shrill cries from some of the other candidates. Sir Malcolm has two special selling points: as a former foreign secretary he is one of the few remaining Tory MPs with experience of high office, and he had the foresight to oppose the Iraq war. But both these advantages are comfortably trumped by Ken Clarke.
The emergence of Clarke is disastrous for David Cameron. One close member of the Cameron camp acknowledged this week, ‘If Clarke stands, that really screws up David.’ Admittedly, Clarke would not threaten the inner core of David Cameron’s support, the 20 or so modernisers who will stick with the shadow education secretary come what may. But Clarke would detach too many of the 30 or so still uncommitted Tory MPs whose votes Cameron simply must secure if his campaign is to gain momentum. Nicholas Soames, now retired from front-bench duties and an influential backbencher, might be classified as a member of this group. He has been telling friends that he is backing Cameron but would fall behind Clarke if the former chancellor stands.
David Cameron has run an attractive and serious campaign for the Tory leadership. But this news of a Clarke candidacy means that he is more likely to end up playing the part of a kingmaker rather than contender. His most promising role might be as the young, thrusting chief executive alongside Clarke’s avuncular chairmanship. But Cameron faces a dilemma: backing Clarke would do yet more damage to his already edgy relationship with David Davis.
The Davis camp remains confident that it can see Ken Clarke off. The shadow home secretary’s lieutenants are skilled in the darker political arts, and far from squeamish. Till now they have seen Cameron as the principal obstacle, and a series of diary items have popped up as if by magic drawing attention to Cameron’s social exclusivity, directorship of a drinks business, etc. From now on it can be confidently predicted that Ken Clarke’s age, alleged laziness, links with the tobacco industry and views on Europe will be given similar prominence.
The age issue is curious. It is at least arguable that the cult of youth has proved disastrous for both the Tory and Labour parties. Tony Blair was 43 and the youngest prime minister for two centuries when he entered 10 Downing Street in 1997. His lack of experience and understanding has proved a tragedy both for him and for the country. It accounts at least in part for his successive failures of nerve on the domestic stage, and the catastrophic naivety of his foreign policy. As for William Hague, who became Tory leader in his mid-thirties, roughly the same age that David Cameron is now, that was neither more nor less than a disaster for all concerned. Allies of David Davis have some truth on their side when they observe that making Cameron leader now is like drinking Ch