The recalling of parliament last week revealed several cracks in the foundations of the British political system – from intensified rivalry, to the voting format itself, to issues of disloyalty within parties. David Cameron, at the head of the Conservatives, has been under pressure for a while now to unite what is a divided political party; until last week, his toughest task was not a member of the traditionalist group that fills the back benches, but perhaps one of the most liberal and neutral members of the party, Senior Minister Kenneth Clarke. Now, after the vote concerning UK military involvement in Syria, it seems that Clarke’s time (stretching 43 years in parliament) may finally be up, after the Minister-without-portfolio failed to register his vote. There had been talk in the media of a shake up at the top of government even before the Syrian conflict intensified a fortnight ago, and Cameron’s failure to convince important members of his own party to support him last week may give the PM the perfect excuse to shake off members who are out of favour.
Clarke at Home
Not getting ahead of anything, the coming shake up will be relevant only to cabinet and party power – Kenneth Clarke remains popular in his home constituency of Rushcliffe in South Nottinghamshire (perhaps even more so depending on his constituents’ opinions on Syria). It is clear that Clarke will not lose his seat unless he voluntarily stands down (which, due to his age and in light of last week’s events, may be likely) – at the 2010 general election, he claimed over 50% of the vote, almost 16,000 more votes than either the Labour or Liberal Democrat candidates. His image as a locally-minded MP has remained intact throughout his political career; Clarke attended local schools and returned after his time at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he entered student politics and was President of the Cambridge Union, a debating and speaker society (having been pipped to the top spot by Michael Howard the year before). Perhaps it is simply an effect of his time in power, but Clarke has been able to build a public personality around his political work that is rarely seen among senior politicians – he is well known for his love of cricket, jazz music and cigars, and has even managed to trade mark Hush Puppies’ suede shoes.
Clarke in SW1
In Westminster, the Nottinghamshire MP has been to the top floor but not the roof of the palace. Clarke has held various cabinet positions including Secretary of State for Health, the Home Office and Lord Chancellor, but it was as Chancellor of the Exchequer under PM John Major after the surprise Tory win in 1992 that he really made his mark – the British economy stabilised after the recession of the early 1990s and many of Clarke policies, including deficit-reduction bills and employment stimuli, were maintained by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as New Labour gems between 1997 and 2001. Since the Conservatives lost the 1997 election however, Clarke has had a rockier time of it: he has lost 3 separate bids to become Party Leader and Leader of the Opposition, beaten by William Hague, Iain Duncan-Smith and David Cameron respectively. The last time in 2005, Clarke was beaten down by senior Tory members for several political and ideological irregularities. And unfortunately for the Rushcliffe MP, his opinions on the UK in Europe (towards which he is in considerable favour) among other differences set him apart from his Conservative Peers.
Clarke and the Party
Clarke’s consistent failure to win the party leadership is a direct effect of the divided nature of the Conservatives over the last 15 years to the present day. The most contemporary manifestation of this divide is over Europe. Cameron has promised a referendum in 2017 if he has the power to instigate it, and many party members have welcomed this. Clarke however, publicly supports Britain’s place in the European Union – he was a key member of the lobbying committee behind Britain’s entry to the European Economic Community in the 1970s, and now holds senior positions in pro-EU think-tanks British Influence, the Conservative Europe Group and the UK European Movement. In an interview with the Financial Times earlier this year, Clarke expressed his dissatisfaction at the pressure on younger, pro-European Conservatives to remain quiet to allow the “30 or 40 Tory MPs that want [Britain] out of the EU” to dictate the debate.
Evidentally, another contemporary divide in the party is attitude to international intervention, and with it, opinion of Anglo-American military relations. Clarke, to some the cabinet member with the most integrity, will be made an example of in the upcoming reshuffle, and unfortunately for his constituents in Rushcliffe, he’ll probably retire at the same time (or at least before the next election). What with next-door-neighbour Patrick Mercer (who incidentally did not participate in the parliamentary vote either) in Newark and Sherwood resigning the Tory whip and pledging not to stand at the next election after his lobbying scandal, half of South Nottinghamshire is up for grabs. Both traditional Conservative strongholds, new candidates are set to emerge over the next year or so.
Elizabeth Rigby and Kiran Stacey, ‘Cameron fails in quest for political unity over Syria’. Financial Times, August 30th 2013
Robert Winnett, Peter Dominiczak and Holly Watt, ‘Ministers face sack over Syria shambles’. Telegraph, August 30th 2013
‘Kenneth Clarke’, available at ‘conservatives.com’