As MPs reconvened in Westminster on 16 December 2019, there was much talk about the altered feel of the House of Commons. It used to be that as you walked through Central Lobby, if you heard a northern accent you could be reasonably sure you were overhearing a Labour MP. Not anymore. On the Lib Dem side: no Jo Swinson, no Chuka Umunna, no Vince Cable. Without Nigel Dodds, the DUP looked mysteriously rudderless.
It all suggests that history moves very quickly: it’s as if at a general election one set of arguments is assented to forever, and another utterly rejected. But during the run-up to Christmas in Westminster, there was a temptation to pause and think about another absence. That was Kenneth Clarke, the former Father of the House of Commons – no longer taking his familiar seat for the first time in 50 years.
Clarke’s absence was felt particularly since it opened up onto others in the Tory ranks: former justice secretary David Gauke had left the house after losing South West Hertfordshire to Gagan Mohindra, albeit with a respectable 15,919 votes. In a near-identical race, one-time attorney general Dominic Grieve lost Beaconsfield to Indiana-born Joy Morrissey, notching up 16,765 votes. Meanwhile, Anne Milton lost Guildford to Angela Richardson by a more substantial margin, securing only 4,356 votes, although the former Minister of State for Skills and Apprenticeships experienced a squeeze from the Liberal Democrats.
The prime ministership is such a high-wire act that all victory is Pyrrhic: a general election is best defined as the beginning of difficulties different to the ones you had before. David Gauke echoed this in the aftermath of his own defeat: “Boris Johnson’s Conservatives might look all-powerful now, but there is certainly a vacuum there that needs to be filled.”
If Boris Johnson wishes to know the nature of the difficulties to come, I would send him back in time to the Carlton Club on 12 September 2019, and a meeting of that august body, the Watford and South Hertfordshire Business Club.
Founded in 1832, the Carlton Club is, of course, the original home of the Conservative Party. As you enter, the paintings remind you of the importance of the place. The spacious Churchill room has an oil painting of the great man staring down at you, as if defiant not just of Hitler but of being painted.
There’s also a portrait of Benjamin Disraeli – founder of One Nation Conservatism, the philosophy that has been invoked by every Conservative prime minister since, and now feels especially relevant for Boris Johnson’s ‘people’s government’. The Victorian stands in a room surrounded by fellow politicians: he might be explaining to them how dominant his party will be for the next 150 years.
I suspect historians will wish to revisit that room on that particular September night. The event was planned before Johnson removed the whip from 21 MPs, and the very invitations seemed inadvertently humorous: the three main speakers for the evening in that bastion of Conservative rule were no longer Conservatives. These were in ascending order of interest: Richard Harrington, the MP for Watford, as host; David Gauke, so fresh from his time as Secretary of State for Justice that the invitation still bore that title rather than the more prosaic MP for South West Hertfordshire; and finally, Kenneth Clarke himself.
I speak first to Harrington who is, as Martin Amis said of Nicholson Baker, “tall beyond utility”. Though I have to squint upwards to make out his features, his face is mobile with a sort of humorous anguish: “I’m finished,” he says, referring to his recent trials. I commiserate with him, and elicit some optimism. “I do feel I have one more big thing in me, but I won’t know what that is until this is over.”
Harrington was speaking on the eve of a winter of endless permutations – all of which would in retrospect prove helpful to Johnson. Survey the destiny of the 21 Remaineers – as one might tentatively call them – and one discovers a disunity which seems a microcosm of the wider disorganisation of the Remain faction. Some, like Guto Bebb, Clarke, and Harrington, chose to leave parliament altogether. Another who left was Sir Oliver Letwin – but not before laying down an amendment seeking to impose a Brexit delay on the Johnson administration. But this constitutional movement also provoked disagreement among the Remain faction. Rory Stewart, for instance, voted against it, but the likes of Kenneth Clarke voted for it.
As the election rolled round, there were those like Gauke and Grieve who chose to fight. And then there were the retirees such as Philip Hammond and Nicholas Soames, who preferred to disappear quietly.
One of those who chose to fight was Anne Milton. I visited Guildford to observe her campaign, and met there a popular MP who could hardly walk 10 yards down Guildford High Street on market day without being recognised. (The Johnson administration should note that from Gauke to Grieve, Stewart to Milton, all the departed independents were popular local MPs.)
Milton was continually greeted with a cheery “Hello Anne!” or a commiserating: “I think that Boris is a monster.” Although she must have known she was facing defeat, she seemed a happy warrior. “How are you?” asks one voter. “I’m marvellous!” comes the perky reply. Each time she places an Independent sticker on someone’s winter coat, she does it with a sort of authoritative double-pat.
She asks about this article, and I tell her about the night at the Carlton Club, and she laughs, observing. “What is the Conservative party now if Ken Clarke leaves parliament not a Conservative? You almost need go no further than that.”
Back at the Carlton Club, just as Harrington is mulling his post-parliamentary life, Clarke walks in. Smaller than one expects – he has had back surgery and walks with a questing stoop – he brings with him the hoped-for Clarkean bonhomie.
“I am still a Conservative,” says the 79-year-old member for Rushcliffe cheerfully. “You’re quite safe dining with me.” As is often the case with the famous, Clarke is skilled at talking to large huddles of people. “Nobody told me I’d lost the whip,” he says, laughing, “but it doesn’t really bother me!”
The evening soon falls into predictable shape: however much stardust you sprinkle on these occasions, these dinners are samey. It’s only when you create for yourself a longer perspective that you view their secret drama: enough of them, amassed in the memory, can be made to exhibit the prosaic but meaningful stuff of history.
In November last year, I recall Theresa May sitting stoically in the middle of the Dorchester ballroom at an event she obviously didn’t relish, while the vultures circled. “I see Theresa is trying to get us together,” said the then education secretary Damian Hinds to his former schoolfriend Jacob Rees-Mogg, eyes rolling wearily. “Oh yes? How is she doing?” said the future Leader of the House of Commons, with languid ennui.
This image segues into the Spring Lunch, a week before the May administration’s final unwinding. On that occasion, there was a last days of Rome feel, the auction bids intended to generate funds for marginal seats flew around desultorily. In the event, pretty much every one of those seats would be won by Johnson before Christmas. At the time, it looked like money down the drain.
I recall Theresa May at the lectern, her hands visibly shaking throughout her speech to the party faithful. If you’re in a room with Boris Johnson, one notes many things, but not nervousness when he speaks.
What the independents forgot was the faithfulness of the faithful. At the Spring Lunch, for instance – when May was still prime minister – Addison Lee founder John Griffin told me how he’d refused to reply to Johnson’s texts: “Only when she gives me the nod,” he said, before talking about the need for fundraising at the smaller donation level. “Everyone thinks we have a lot of money, but the reason we didn’t win in 2017 is because we weren’t properly funded.”
Griffin is an example of the loyalist, and there are many like him who incline to the party come what may. Ronel Lehmann, a treasurer of the Conservative Party and CEO of Finito Education, was another who feared above all, “the possibility of a Labour government predicated on the country returning to living beyond its means”.
For the likes of Griffin and Lehmann, the 21 rebels were too blasé about Corbyn; they had forgotten past fights, and the solidarity that ought to have been engendered by them. That’s also the predominant impression of Milton in Guildford during her campaign – of someone cut-off, perhaps brutally so, from the central resources of the party. I ask her how she affords the campaign and she refers in shadowy terms to “one or two people” who have helped her out.
Back at the Watford Association dinner, Richard Harrington recalls how he met Clarke: “I’ve always been a big fan of Ken. I spent some enjoyable weeks in 2001 fighting for the leadership against Iain Duncan-Smith, which was futile for Ken and myself.”
There are some knowing titters – Clarke’s three abortive stabs at the leadership, when Europe was on each occasion the stumbling block, seem in retrospect clear precursors of how he ended up. Clarke explains that he will address the room sitting down, a decision that will make him look like an emblem of a battered Conservativism already receding into the past. “This isn’t another of my eccentricities,” he explains. “I had an operation on my spine quite recently – it’s fully recovered, it’s gone well. But if you insist on my standing it’s likely to be short and not very good for me.”
He proceeds to outline the mood in Westminster during the prorogation saga. “In the House of Commons, we’re not falling out: I don’t think you’d think anything had changed. Bill Cash is a friend of mine; we get on perfectly well.” (Cash will later confirm this: “We get on, it’s odd,” he says, before adding with amusing candour: “Though we are in complete and total disagreement.”)
Clarke refers to other warm friendships: “When I’m not flatly contradicting Iain Duncan-Smith, we make jokes together. And I bumped into James Cleverly the other day [Conservative Party chairman]. I asked him where the hell we thought we were and we agreed that neither of us were quite sure whether I was still a Conservative.”
At which, there are cries of “David Gauke’s here!” And indeed, Gauke is hurriedly weaving between the tables, looking faintly embarrassed. He signals to Clarke to keep talking – and he does: “Two questions I will answer straightaway. Have I seen anything like this? The answer is: ‘Obviously no, because nobody has.’ Do I know what’s going to happen? No. I’m afraid we’ve descended into utter unpredictability. What Boris is going to do, I don’t think Boris knows. He acts spontaneously – to put it politely. He makes it up as he goes along.”
These words now sound bizarre in reference to a prime minister who looks in retrospect to have sought very clearly a strategy to fight and win precisely the general election he did. They go to show how cut-off all but a few are from the upper echelons of power.
Even so, there are moments of prescience. When the first question is lobbed, it’s to do with Brexit: does he think there’ll be a deal? Clarke fields it: “I would say he’d make everyone look silly if he can clinch a deal and get it through. You need some face-saving in politics sometimes, and there is a deal on the table which Boris and I have voted for at one time or another – and it’s Theresa May’s deal. He should put some bells and whistles on it and find a mutually face-saving arrangement.”
Everyone listens silently, not knowing the extent of his clairvoyance. Johnson’s deal – a 15-page amendment to May’s enormous Withdrawal Agreement – would indeed be just that, and Clarke would signal his intention to vote for it on 19 October.
The next question is on trade and his answer now seems to carry from that parliament to this. “You surrender sovereignty on a monster scale when you try to do a trade deal in the United States,” he warns. “I was involved in that when trying to negotiate TTIP. It was my last job in the Cameron administration and I was Minister without Portfolio. I went to Brussels and to Washington DC to make sure British interests played a proper part in the negotiations. I’m afraid it was pretty hopeless, as the US has such protectionist instincts.”
As one listens, one begins to understand what this parliament will be missing: that slightly humorous, commonsense voice that has commented on our politics for nearly half a century. “This was in the age of Obama,” Clarke continues. “Obama’s people were alright but it was the lobbyists in America and some in Europe who were the problem, and that’s not got better under Trump.”
I ask him what he thinks of Trump personally: “Trump is saying he wants to do something because he’s delighted we’re leaving the EU. More importantly, he’s desperately looking for more farm exports, and he has this capitalist view that he wants to redress all the countries where he trades at a deficit. But to get a deal, you have to have mutually binding agreements on tariffs, customs, procedures and price standards – and you’ve got to take the product standards that the House of Representatives want.”
Welcome, then, to 2020, where we will become as expert on mutually binding agreements as we fleetingly were in 2019 on the Letwin amendment, or on the ramifications of the Benn Act.
Clarke adds: “The US has totally different standards to ourselves on food and on animal welfare. Trump assumes we will take American standards and there’s no chance he could move on that because Congress will not alter them for this president or anyone else: I don’t think he could deliver a deal if he really wanted to.”
Which lobbyists is he thinking of? “The food lobbyists are terribly strong in some key electoral states. The other markets we want to open up are public procurement and financial and legal services. But there are still all kinds of barriers to providing those services: the regulators over there are a powerful lobby. Try negotiating your way through that.”
And has he had any experience in other countries? “I’ve tried doing trade negotiations with India. Unfortunately, it’s not a free trade country, and you can’t get them to open up their market properly. The idea that the American trade deal will compensate for putting us outside custom tariffs is absolute piffle.”
Now a Watfordian stands up and says: “I admire all the 21 people for their principles, I think they’re the soul of this party. We can’t have this one Brexit party: we have to have all sorts of people in the party!”
With the ensuing applause, you could be forgiven for thinking there are no Leavers in the room. So what are they warming to? It’s something of which Johnson, now embarked on a new administration with a healthy majority, might take heed: not Clarke’s views, but his nature.
As the evening progresses, Clarke returns time again to the need for respect. “Gladstone and Disraeli were even more savage in the House of Commons [than we are],” he says, “and then ate in each other’s homes at the weekend. Throughout my life, I don’t think I’ve ever fallen out personally with anyone I’ve fallen out with politically. I suppose I’ve not met a fascist or an ultra-racist.”
Someone in the audience asks: “Would you have dinner with Farage?” At first Clarke doesn’t hear – or perhaps is pretending not to hear so he has time to think of an answer. Then he says in a measured way: “I get on well with him when I do television with him. He’s not my type of guy; we both got booed together on Question Time.” Then he adds: “I like Jeremy Corbyn – a very nice chap who makes me feel rather nostalgic for the 1970s. He’s the last Bennite in the House of Commons.”
Dominic Cummings meanwhile – the likely cause of Clarke’s having the whip withdrawn – features as one of those “curious campaigning salesmen in Downing Street”, but he scrupulously concedes that he hasn’t met him. I am left with the intriguing impression that Corbyn makes more sense to him than Cummings.
Clarke can see the humour in his own predicament – and Anne Milton is the same. She recalls the events leading up to her loss of the whip: “We had that meeting with the PM. I pointed out to him that if you use no deal as a negotiating tactic, a seat like this could be lost. It wasn’t about me, it was about the seat. He said: ‘If Guildford’s lost, it’s lost!’” and he threw his hand in the air.” Was he under pressure? “Yes, he was.”
Of course, there’s some irony now to this story: Guildford wasn’t lost, and so must admire Johnson’s gamble. But we would be wrong to do that without considerng what might have been the case had events – Farage’s standing-down, Corbyn’s and Swinson’s respective failings – taken a different turn.
Throughout my time with Milton, I never get the sense that she is bitter about her situation. “Someone said to me: ‘What have you done to us, Anne?’ And I said, ‘Something was done to me. The party I joined changed dramatically and it’s hard to put it into words.” She adds: “I am an outstandingly moderate person.” And Boris? “He has no respect for parliament or for MPs.”
Among all the narratives we have witnessed during this remarkable winter, I would select Philip Hammond’s as the most astonishing. I attended a fundraiser with him in May where he delivered an expansive speech about the need for “a tolerant, open Conservativism” – again, name-checking Disraeli. When I asked him about Boris Johnson, he was diplomatic: “Let’s see,” he said, adding: “With Boris, it all depends on the people around him – and that worked out well when he was London mayor. Boris will do what’s good for Boris.”
It is the precipitousness of politics: one minute you are confiding to excited fellow diners the latest position on Huawei (“I think the Americans have moved on that”) and then, having left office, you are photographed on the tube as an emblem of the transitory nature of power. By 28 September you issue a statement: “For the time in 35 years I am not packing my bag to travel to the Tory party conference tomorrow” – and that in relation to a conference which, if things had gone a little differently, you might have attended as chancellor of the exchequer.
Perhaps it is Clarke’s lasting gift to the party that he has kept his bonhomie during the turbulence of the last years: it is as if seeing all the things he has fought for in his political life fall apart hasn’t especially upset him.
Towards the end of the evening, he delivers a kind of retrospective testament that quietens the room: “What drew me to the Conservative Party was this: I joined before everyone in this room was born – 60 years ago, when I was a student. It was Harold Macmillan who made me decide which party would have the privilege of having me. It was his advocacy for joining the European Union. Ever since, we’ve been a mainstream Conservative Party: for a modernising free market; for social conscience; international; pro-European. Until three years ago.”
He is in full history lesson flow now: “Suez had shown that we were a laughing stock economically, being overtaken by the countries we’d beaten in the war. We had lost all self-confidence. We were a fringe country; we were a satellite of the US during the Cold War. But from the moment we joined, we benefited. We were one of the three members in the European bloc – and our close relationship with the US made us a country with huge ability to defend our interest. We joined the modern economy: to that decision can be attributed our present quality of life and living standards.”
There is a curious hush as he continues. “Margaret Thatcher improved the system by creating today’s single market – up to Cameron, who campaigned to extend the single market further into services which we failed to do as we failed to persuade the Germans to do it.”
What historians will not know is the mood in the room as he spoke – a definite pensiveness. This didn’t necessarily denote complete agreement. It was to do with a sense of deeper time than what we are used to in the age of Twitter: Clarke spoke, whether one agreed with him or not, from another era.
And yet as always with Brexit there was a paradox. Clarke also views the pan-European project as an aspect of modernity: “Attitudes to Europe rather depend on your attitudes to the modern world and pace of change,” he told the room. “And so yes, I do admire all 21 of those who have now lost the whip and I do think they are the soul of the party.”
At which point David Gauke stands up to speak. He does so in solemnly, as if reading out an awful diagnosis: “Superlatives are sometimes overdone but there are very few people to compare with Ken Clarke. I felt enormously proud to walk through the lobby with Ken, putting the national interest ahead of our personal concerns. The question is: ‘Do we want to be a party in the tradition of Ken Clarke, John Major, Michael Heseltine, William Hague and David Cameron? Or do you want to depart from all that because there are voices in high places in Number 10 who want us to do so?”’
How fast history can sometimes seem to move. Politics is good business for removal men. Ministers lose the whip or gain positions; prime ministers come and go. The despair experienced in one week turns out to have been fairly easily borne; hopeful moments, widely reported on, turn out to have been chimeras.
Yet in parallel, how slow its developments really are. We do not change as much as we think we do. As the Watfordians filed out into the Mayfair night, one thought of the huge strangeness that can attach itself to a nation’s fate. What if Johnson hadn’t campaigned for Remain? What if Corbyn had not been placed in charge of the Labour Party? And yet these larger decisions bequeath subsidiary narratives: Harrington’s retirement, and Milton’s brave but unhappy election battle. In Guildford, I ask Milton if she feels angry about it all? Her reply is swift: “Never. I’m not that sort of person. They did what they did and I did what I did and that’s the end of it.”
But it’s not the end of it. The nation is altered. It travelled in a different direction than some wished and, for better or worse, we now inhabit that reality, and not the one they imagined they might bequeath. Recent history can only really be said to be meaningless if the tales of Clarke, Milton, Gauke, Harrington, Hammond and Hunt are meaningless. And if they’re not that then they must have something to bequeath even to the administration which so absolutely outmanoeuvred them. So can Boris learn from Ken Clarke? Ronel Lehmann demurs: “The only thing Boris needs to do is show compassion. The perception of the party is we’re not compassionate. We are, but we’re not good at showing it.”
I approach Clarke after hearing him speak. I mention an aunt of mine who knew his wife. “Oh, I’ve lost my wife now,” he says with tender and slightly heartbreaking cheerfulness. I say it would be good to sit down with him soon for this magazine. Obviously in a hurry and surrounded by the press, he says, “Well, write to me at the House of Commons.” He is about to turn away, but then adds reassuringly: “I will remember the conversation.”
It is a small moment, but it is kind. The career of Ken Clarke turns out to be about something more than Europe after all. It’s to do with duty, service, showing up – all those things. But really, it’s about having a good time and making friends in the process. It’s not the legacy he might have wanted to leave as he retires from politics, but after the bitterness of the winter, it’s a valuable one.