Ken Clarke returning to frontline politics

This article was published on the Guardian Website
19 January 2009
A Labour welcome for Ken Clarke

The europhile's return will only highlight the bankrupt isolationist nature of current Tory international thinking
Welcome Ken Clarke. As a pro-European I cannot but rejoice at the return of Clarke to frontline politics. A fortnight ago, William Hague elbowed aside George Osborne to use the "never" word about the euro. Nominally the shadow chancellor should be in charge of opposition policy on matters sterling. But so dominant is Hague's position in the increasingly anti-EU Conservative party that he felt able to make pronunciamentos on Britain and the euro. In the past, Tory politicians who use the word "never" have come to grief.
So welcome, Ken Clarke, who has been a consistently pro-euro politician, speaking up for the currency when Tony Blair dared not mention its name and finding good things to say about Europe at the time when the anti-euro Treasury briefed against it.
In fact, since Edward Heath left the Commons, it is hard to think of a more pro-Europe politician of Clarke's seniority on the Tory side. As a smooth, brain-bright lawyer who hides a keen intellect behind his tough-and-ready Nottingham bloke style, Ken will have worked of plenty of patter to deal with the Paxmans and Humphreys and Boultons as they tease him over his pro-European views in a party that remains solidly hostile to the EU.
Labour and the Lib Dems have their share of eurosceptics ranging from the downright hostile to the cautious and suspicious, and to those who, over recent years, have believed what they are told by the Daily Mail on Brussels and by the Guardian on the euro. But to anyone who sits in the Chamber of the Commons, as does Clarke regularly to his credit, the hostility to Europe across the board of Tory MPs who have arrived since 1997 is a constant.
Here are some of the questions about Tory policy that Clarke might be asked:
Does he support breaking all links with other centre-right parties in Europe after the European Parliament election this summer?
Does he agree with David Cameron's pledge that a Conservative government "will hold a referendum on any EU treaty" even though Parliament has ratified the treaty?
Does he agree that Britain should rule out euro entry in perpetuity?
Does he still hold to his view expressed on the BBC Politics Show that David Cameron needs to "decide that being a more extreme eurosceptic than any of his predecessors is not the best way to launch himself on the international scene".
Does he agree with President-elect Barak Obama's view that Cameron is a "lightweight" after the Tory leader ranted against Europe in his meeting with Obama last summer?
Does he support the Tory party's refusal to expel or discipline Tory candidates, MPs, MEPs and councillors who make unpleasant remarks about Europeans?
Does he think Hague's TV and Commons xenophobic jibes at France and Germany are good preparation for a potential incoming foreign secretary?
Does he welcome the return of a fellow pro-European, Peter Mandelson, to politics?
Mandelson is a low-tax, pro-business, anti-protectionist, pro-Euroatlantic politician so where should Clarke – who shares Mandelson's views – start to attack him?
Labour and Lib Dem MPs in the Commons should welcome Clarke's return since on Europe, he would be much more comfortable sitting with Charles Kennedy or with pro-European ministers in government.
The return of Clarke allows Labour an opportunity to highlight the bankrupt isolationist nature of current Tory international thinking. For 20 years, ever since Margaret Thatcher's Bruges attack on Europe, the Conservatives have become more and more hostile to the EU. Shortly before his election as leader, Cameron told me: "I am much more eurosceptic than you imagine, Denis." I have no reason to doubt his word. Today the Tories are in alliance only with Vladimir Putin's lapdog party in the Council of Europe, where this time last year Cameron's MPs were trying to install an ex-KGB staffer as the president of Europe's main human rights body.
The interstices of European politics get little coverage in the British press but today's Conservatives are the most isolationist and anti-internationalist party of any mainstream European or global centre-right party. Bringing back Clarke adds experience to the Tory front bench, though his brutal handling of teachers and doctors when he was a minister is still resented. But on the core dividing ideology of European and international politics, Clarke and Cameron are not in the same book let alone the same page.