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31 December 2019updated 21 Sep 2021 5:04am

After 49 years in parliament, Ken Clarke reflects on the changing nature of government

By Harry Lambert

Ken Clarke was, after Churchill and Heath, the longest-serving Conservative MP since the beginning of the 20th century. Clarke stepped down at the 2019 election after 49 years in parliament, having held five Cabinet positions, including Chancellor of the Exchequer and Home Secretary. He also served as a secretary of state for justice, health, and education.

This interview was recorded on 26 November 2019, shortly before the election. Parts of the interview feature in our recent profile of Dominic Grieve and the other Tory MPs purged from the party by Dominic Cummings, in which Clarke described Johnson’s deal with the EU as “desperate” , and the Remain alliance as “like herding cats”. The longer version of Clarke’s comments reveals what troubles a veteran of the ruling party, who ran for its leadership three times: that Britain is no longer governed by the Cabinet or by parliament, but by unelected political advisers.

On his customs union amendment almost passing in March 2019 (it failed by 4 votes)

“It would have had a big political effect. [But] the indicative votes thing would have been abandoned straight away, [with a dismissive] ‘well that’s very interesting’, because parliament’s much weaker than when I arrived. All the unwritten conventions of the unwritten constitution are just being ignored by government nowadays, so far as I can see, even lawyers now accept we [parliament] are not legally binding. I’m sure they would have said, ‘Unless it’s in legislation we’re going to ignore it’.

“That’s why Oliver Letwin had to work with Hilary Benn, to get the Benn Act through, so as to put legislation in place to oblige them to seek an extension. The underlying big thing, all the way through, was: the government was determined to pursue a policy for which it knew that it had no majority. It knew the majority of the House of Commons was opposed to it. Twice, votes were passed against a no-deal departure. The government took what is, worryingly, the increasingly prevalent view… it doesn’t have to do things with the consent of the House. It’s just a motion, it’s just a debating society.”

So the Benn Act should never have been necessary?

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“No. Ten years ago, no government would have proceeded with a policy which the House of Commons had voted against. The idea that government could ignore parliament would have been regarded as fatuous.”

On the dominance of political advisers

“This all started with Tony Blair. Tony couldn’t stand parliament, he didn’t know why he had to be in parliament to be a minister, and he certainly didn’t know why parliament had to have all these debates and votes on things, and his ministers hanging around all the time. He brought in Alistair Campbell, got rid of all the civil service press officers. He started this business, which we now govern the country on, of having all these apparatchiks in No 10, who are usually young and have just been in a think tank or something, and know damn all about government, and that is more important than the Cabinet, really. Cabinet government rapidly died.

“What Tony started, Cameron continued – and tried to take further. Theresa May continued, and Boris has taken [it] to what I regard as absurd lengths. But I bet Corbyn would, [although] there are few people in the UK will less chance of becoming Prime Minister than Corbyn. [Yet] he would run it the same way, Mr Seamus Milne would run the country.

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“They object to parliament interfering with the public relations timetable; it talks about the wrong subjects; people produce quotes that conflict with the public-relations message of the day. In Theresa’s government, they were on the whole only happy when parliament was discussing motherhood and apple pie on a one-line whip. We hardly had any votes! No serious business was brought to the floor of the House at all.

“Until we had the heroic Mr Bercow who turned that all round, with my firm support. We started having Urgent Questions, we started having statements. To their dismay, governments now find they spend the first 3-4 hours talking about something which the public are interested in, and the subject isn’t even in the grid! The subject hasn’t been chosen by Mr Cummings, or Alistair Campbell, or Mr Timothy, or whoever it is who’s supposed to be running the country. That’s what caused our unwritten constitution to collapse. That’s what’s finally produced this absurdity of a government trying to take us out of European Union without a deal, totally severing our relationships with the rest of the world, let alone the rest of Europe, when they knew that a majority of the House of Commons was opposed to that policy.”

On Theresa May

“I’m not going to be so scathing about Theresa. It was an unhappy premiership. She was accidentally elected leader. It was a farcical leadership election where in the end it was like a Jacobean tragedy. She was the only one left standing on the stage, with everybody left lying around with knives sticking out their front or their back. It was the worst, most challenging, dreadfully difficult circumstances that any PM in my times ever faced. She could not have picked up a worse hand.”

But could she have played it any worse? 

“Yes. She could have made all sorts of daft demands about having our cake and eating it, and carrying on having access to the single market but we just don’t observe any of the rules.

“Very early on, I had one meeting with her. But she’s very Delphic and withdrawn. Very shy and introverted. She gave me about 45 minutes on my own. I left and actually I knew no more about what she was going to do than when I arrived. What had I discovered? Nothing. So I never asked for another meeting and I never had another meeting. I was perfectly friendly to her.”

On sovereignty

“You can’t take a purist, Victorian, 100 per cent view of sovereignty and say you’re going to sign treaties. A treaty involves entering into mutually binding obligation. You each agree you’re going to do certain things and not depart from them, and you’re not going to do other things. You wouldn’t join Nato, you wouldn’t sign up to its charter.”

On the Remain campaign

“Pretty useless. A lot of Blairite New Labour people, just blathering away. Lots of think tank people, reassuring each other of the arguments. Cameron and Osborne then took it over completely and dominated the national campaigning for Remain. They always made clear they would have nothing to do with an all-party campaign.

“All the meetings I went to, all they talked about was producing leaflets, which think tank was going to produce a leaflet. Nobody reads those but political anoraks.”

…and what it should have focused on

“The benefits we’d acquired. The best argument for Remain was: for the past 40 years we’ve had a much bigger voice in global politics because we’re one of three leading countries in the European bloc, and we’re usually the one with the closest links with America, and that gives us a tremendous platform. If you pull out of the EU, you become… dependent on big brother America, rather like Canada.

“Canada’s a very rich country, but it doesn’t have [influence]. The political reasons for being in EU have always been more important than the economic, but the economic are very important, ever since we persuaded them to create the single market. You cannot leave the biggest, richest free trade area in the world, to which you have open access, without damaging your economy! We are the most business-friendly economy to invest in, with free access to the European market.

“Cameron’s case was, ‘of course it’s dreadful, I agree with that, but I’ve made it better with my reforms.’ He didn’t know what he wanted to reform, [and] he didn’t achieve very much. Meanwhile Osborne was running the campaign, [saying] ‘You’ve got to vote for it, if you don’t they’ll be a recession in a month, they’ll be a terrible punishment budget, I shall have to raise taxes and cut spending on the health service, so vote Remain.’”

On whether he could have contained the Tory right, had he become leader

“Well, we’ll never know what the cure could have been – why the British never really settled down to being members of Europe.

“But this rumbling discontent, partly helped by the right-wing press, when it went to the Eurosceptic right in the 1980s, and partly by the fall of Margaret, when her embittered friends all said it was some sort of European plot which had brought her down, which it wasn’t… If Heseltine or I had been leader, which at various stages was conceivable, would we have been any better at getting rid of this poison in the system? The good thing about being part of this club of people who never became prime minister is nobody knows how bad you would have been. But we would both have been more combative, more belligerent.

“The policy of successive leaders, which Cameron epitomised with his referendum, has been appeasement, trying to win them over, to mollify them, saying you agree with them really, [to] find big victories you can wave about after every Council of Ministers meeting, to blame the Europeans for every pig ear’s you’ve made. ‘The EU’s made us do it.’ I don’t think if Hezza or I had tried to cheer up the Eurosceptics, either of us would ever faintly have succeeded. In our very different styles, we’re both as instinctively combative as Margaret Thatcher ever was. Who knows. It’s too late now.”