On a trip to Australia, I discover that a day is a very long time in politics Down Under

Douglas Alexander's Notebook.

I arrive Down Under as a guest of the Australian government, but my breakfast appointment on the first morning happens to be with none other than Alastair Campbell. He’s in Sydney simultaneously to support the British and Irish Lions and to talk about his diaries.

At a table overlooking the Sydney Opera House, we discuss the picture on the front page of every newspaper – showing Prime Minister Julia Gillard knitting a woollen kangaroo for the royal baby. John McTernan, also previously of Downing Street, now her communications director, is quoted in the coverage as saying the idea “was a no-brainer”.

Cool prime time

The previous day Alastair had been ushered in to see the prime minister in Canberra by John and he echoes the judgement of others, saying she seemed very calm under fire. Given the papers’ comments about her royal roo pose, it’s a quality she’ll need today. My next meeting is with a former Labor prime minister, Paul Keating. Now retired, he remains fascinating and stimulating company.

The sound of power

No sooner have we discussed the role of Kondratieff waves in advanced capitalist economies than Keating is explaining – as a lover of antique clocks – that he used to read the Christie’s catalogue during cabinet meetings. When I ask him what he believes the prime political virtues are, he replies without hesitation: “Imagination and courage.” He then explains that he drew his inspiration and got his best ideas in government by listening to music – “the highest form of art” – and to Shostakovich in particular.

Next it’s down to Canberra, amid growing speculation of a challenge that afternoon by Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard’s leadership. Parliament is in its last week before a long break, so it’s his last chance to challenge her ahead of the election scheduled for September. The Gillard/Rudd rivalry over recent years makes the periodic outbreak of the TB/GBs during our 13 years in office look like a picnic.

Events, dear boys, events

Until a few weeks ago the idea of a comeback for Rudd, the former prime minister deposed by Gillard three years ago, seemed remote. Yet with poor polls suggesting a wipeout in the election just months away, the speculation is at fever pitch as I arrive at Parliament House.

In the course of the morning I meet Foreign Minister Bob Carr, Defence Minister Stephen Smith, Climate Minister Greg Combet and Education and Employment Minister Bill Shorten. Within 24 hours two of these ministers will have announced not only that they’re quitting government but that they’re leaving parliament, too.

Rudd’s supporters make their move that afternoon as word spreads that a petition is being circulated among Labor MPs demanding a leadership vote, or “spill”, as I soon discover it’s called. Making a fateful decision, Gillard responds by announcing a vote that very afternoon, on condition that whoever loses gives up politics altogether.

With half an hour to go, Shorten appears before the cameras to announce that he’s switching his support from Gillard to Rudd. At the subsequent caucus meeting Rudd defeats Gillard by 57 votes to 45.

Labor’s difficulties seem more electoral than economic, and are more to do with personnel than policy: the Australian economy is growing for the 22nd consecutive year, and despite a legislative record that includes major educational reform and the introduction of a landmark disability insurance scheme.

Sheila, take a bow

Gillard’s concession speech was a model of graciousness. After congratulating her rival on his victory she spoke of the “honour” of serving as the country’s first female PM. In part because of her “misogyny speech” that became a huge YouTube hit even in the UK, there was much discussion of how being a woman had affected the way she was treated in the media. Here, too, Gillard had the last – and best – word when she said this about her gender: “It doesn’t explain everything, it doesn’t explain nothing, it explains some things . . . What I am absolutely confident of is it will be easier for the next woman and the woman after that and the woman after that. And I’m proud of that.”

Oz reorientation

One woman who doesn’t seem too bothered by Labor’s leadership change is Julie Bishop, the Liberal opposition’s foreign affairs spokesperson. The next day when I meet her it’s very clear that this suburban Perth MP is still preparing for government. She is well briefed on the issues, and our conversation reinforces how deep and enduring are the ties between the UK and Australia. Yet it is also clear that Australians are already embracing the opportunities of what their government’s recent white paper called “the Asian Century”. Perhaps that explains why in none of my meetings did anyone suggest the UK leaving the EU would be a good thing for Australia. Indeed, in discussion after discussion, the possibility was greeted with a mixture of incredulity and anxiety.

Rugger relief

With 30,000 travelling Lions fans in the country it should be a busy time for Britain’s man in Canberra, High Commissioner Paul Madden, but he tells me with relief and pride that, so far, there has not been a single arrest.

Alas for me, the only meeting that didn’t happen was the one scheduled with a backbench Labor MP at 3.30pm on Thursday afternoon. At least he had a good excuse. That day, the now erstwhile backbencher (Kevin Rudd) instead met Governor General Quentin Bryce to be sworn in as the 28th prime minister of Australia.

As I left Australia the polls were already tightening. Yet Rudd still faces a huge task to defeat the Liberal opposition leader, Tony Abbott. Then again, as I learned from my time in Canberra, a day – never mind a week or a few months – is a very long time indeed in Australian politics.

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary

Sydney Opera House. Photograph: Getty Images

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary and Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

PETER MACDIARMID/REX
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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