Farewell Ken

Under Boris catchy ‘headline’ policies like a new routemaster bus and a no-strike deal with the RMT

So, the election in London is over, we’ve lost a great Mayor, gained an uncertain future and kept our two Green Assembly Members in the face of an almighty squeeze. After a week of catching up on sleep, meeting the babies my friends produced during the campaign and – importantly – reacquainting myself with the local pub, it’s time to reflect.

Although as predicted I am not Mayor, the Greens did remarkably well, all things considered. The thousands of new voters turning out to vote for either Boris or Ken rightly made all the other parties nervous about their vote shares. When we arrived at City Hall on Friday afternoon last week, we had to rely on staring at the relative sizes of the Labour and Tory Assembly votes that were being displayed on plasma screens (via the patented London Elects scale-free bar chart system, which seems to be specifically designed to make candidates nervous). As we tried to work out what each extra chunk on our electronic columns meant in the real world, it did at first look like we would be facing the same level of squeeze that the Scottish Greens saw last year, and which resulted in them losing five of their seven MSPs.

However, as the evening wore tensely on, it became clear that our vote had stood up to the challenge, and that we’d added as many voters as the turnout demanded to keep a virtually identical vote share on the Assembly list as in 2004. In the final count we ended up with exactly the same number of AMs as before, and my vote share in the Mayoral race went up slightly, with around 25,000 extra first preference bringing me in at fourth place (up three on last time). Full results from London Elects here.

Other parties did not fare so well. UKIP and One London were wiped off the Assembly completely, and the LibDems lost two of their five AMs when their Assembly vote went down nearly 7%. Mayor candidate Brian Paddick lost them nearly 5%, too, with an overall reduction in voter numbers for the LibDems of more than 50,000. Our campaign, while it felt a lot like running very hard to stand still, at least saved us from being squeezed like this and, if our extra votes turn out to be from people switching from other parties, rather than new voters coming in to bash Ken or stop Boris, it may mean we are set for a hefty percentage increase in the Euro elections next year.

What’s concerning me in the short term, however, is what our new Tory Mayor will do now. I can guarantee some things we won’t see. Catchy ‘headline’ policies like a new routemaster bus, a no-strike deal with the RMT, and rephasing traffic lights to solve congestion, are all likely to fold quicker than you can say ‘ethical foreign policy’, and I predict we will see them shelved as quietly as possible by the new team in City Hall over the next few months.

On the other hand, Johnson’s pledge to cancel the new £25 congestion charge for gas-guzzlers can be achieved all too easily. After a few days off, I’ll be getting together with my colleagues on the 4x4 campaign and with cycling groups (the money raised by the new C-Charge was earmarked to support new cycling facilities for the next decade, so it’s their concern too) to work out our next move. Watch this space…

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Ken Clarke: Theresa May has “no idea” what to do about Brexit

According to the former Chancellor, “nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next”.

Has Ken Clarke lost the greatest political battle of his career? He doesn’t think so. With his shoes off, he pads around his Westminster office in a striped shirt, bottle-green cords and spotty socks. Parliament’s most persistent Europhile seems relaxed. He laughs at the pervasive phrase that has issued from Downing Street since Theresa May became Prime Minister: “Brexit means Brexit.”

“A very simple phrase, but it didn’t mean anything,” he says. His blue eyes, still boyish at 76, twinkle. “It’s a brilliant reply! I thought it was rather witty. It took a day or two before people realised it didn’t actually answer the question.”

A former chancellor of the Exchequer, Clarke has served in three Conservative cabinets. His support for the European Union is well known. He has represented the seat of Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire for 46 years, and his commitment to the European project has never wavered over the decades. It has survived every Tory civil war and even his three failed attempts to be elected Tory leader, standing on a pro-Europe platform, in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

“My political career looks as though it will coincide with Britain’s membership of the EU,” Clarke says, lowering himself into an armchair that overlooks the Thames. There are model cars perched along the windowsill – a hint of his love of motor racing.

Clarke won’t be based here, in this poky rooftop room in Portcullis House, Westminster, much longer. He has decided to step down at the next election, when he will be nearly 80. “I began by campaigning [in the 1960s] in support of Harold Macmillan’s application to enter [the EU], and I shall retire at the next election, when Britain will be on the point of leaving,” he says grimly.

Clarke supports Theresa May, having worked with her in cabinet for four years. But his allegiance was somewhat undermined when he was recorded describing her as a “bloody difficult woman” during this year’s leadership contest. He is openly critical of her regime, dismissing it as a “government with no policies”.

For a senior politician with a big reputation, Clarke is light-hearted in person – his face is usually scrunched up in merriment beneath his floppy hair. A number of times during our discussion, he says that he is trying to avoid getting “into trouble”. A painting of a stern Churchill and multiple illustrations of Gladstone look down at him from his walls as he proceeds to do just that.

“Nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next on the Brexit front,” he says. He has a warning for his former cabinet colleagues: “Serious uncertainty in your trading and political relationships with the rest of the world is dangerous if you allow it to persist.”

Clarke has seen some of the Tories’ bitterest feuds of the past at first hand, and he is concerned about party unity again. “Whatever is negotiated will be denounced by the ultra-Eurosceptics as a betrayal,” he says. “Theresa May has had the misfortune of taking over at the most impossible time. She faces an appalling problem of trying to get these ‘Three Brexiteers’ [Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox] to agree with each other, and putting together a coherent policy which a united cabinet can present to a waiting Parliament and public. Because nobody has the foggiest notion of what they want us to do.”

Clarke reserves his fiercest anger for these high-profile Brexiteers, lamenting: “People like Johnson and [Michael] Gove gave respectability to [Nigel] Farage’s arguments that immigration was somehow a great peril caused by the EU.”

During the referendum campaign, Clarke made headlines by describing Boris Johnson as “a nicer version of Donald Trump”, but today he seems more concerned about David Cameron. He has harsh words for his friend the former prime minister, calling the pledge to hold the referendum “a catastrophic decision”. “He will go down in history as the man who made the mistake of taking us out of the European Union, by mistake,” he says.

Clarke left the government in Cameron’s 2014 cabinet reshuffle – which came to be known as a “purge” of liberal Conservatives – and swapped his role as a minister without portfolio for life on the back benches. From there, he says, he will vote against the result of the referendum, which he dismisses as a “bizarre protest vote”.

“The idea that I’m suddenly going to change my lifelong opinions about the national interest and regard myself as instructed to vote in parliament on the basis of an opinion poll is laughable,” he growls. “My constituents voted Remain. I trust nobody will seriously suggest that I should vote in favour of leaving the European Union. I think it’s going to do serious damage.”

But No 10 has hinted that MPs won’t be given a say. “I do think parliament sooner or later is going to have to debate this,” Clarke insists. “In the normal way, holding the government to account for any policy the government produces . . . The idea that parliament’s going to have no say in this, and it’s all to be left to ministers, I would regard as appalling.”

Clarke has been characterised as a Tory “wet” since his days as one of the more liberal members of Margaret Thatcher’s government. It is thought that the former prime minister had a soft spot for his robust manner but viewed his left-wing leanings and pro-European passion with suspicion. He is one of parliament’s most enduring One-Nation Conservatives. Yet, with the Brexit vote, it feels as though his centrist strand of Tory politics is disappearing.

“I don’t think that’s extinct,” Clarke says. “The Conservative Party is certainly not doomed to go to the right.”

He does, however, see the rise of populism in the West as a warning. “I don’t want us to go lurching to the right,” he says. “There is a tendency for traditional parties to polarise, and for the right-wing one to go ever more to the right, and the left-wing one to go ever more to the left . . . It would be a catastrophe if that were to happen.”

Clarke’s dream of keeping the UK in Europe may be over, but he won’t be quiet while he feels that his party’s future is under threat. “Don’t get me into too much trouble,” he pleads, widening his eyes in a show of innocence, as he returns to his desk to finish his work. 

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories