A bloke named Ken

by Stephen Tall on March 16, 2006

I like Ken Clarke – how can you not like someone with that much bonhomie, good cheer and hail-fellow-well-metness? But one thing does confuse me… when journos attempt to present him as utterly unspun, a good bloke devoid of any artifice. This cliched thumbnail-portrait is happily trotted out again by Fraser Nelson in his interview with Ken for this week’s Spectator.

His I-shoot-straight-from-the-hip-and-tell-it-like-it-is reputation gives him the freedom to slur his opponents, and very often his own side, by virtue of his seemingly undiscriminating blunt nature. (A trait shared with another anti-politician called Ken.)

Ken Clarke of course is canny enough to understand this, and to play on it. So when he proclaims “Ming is an old Tory!”, and alleges the Cable-Laws-Clegg triumvirate “ought to be Tories”, we can be sure the attack is a premeditated one carefully designed to undermine. But, because this is Ken Unplugged – rather than some pager-fed Tory apparatchik spouting press release platitudes – his remarks are accorded Status.

It’s telling that the Spectator prays in aid Ken’s view that the new Lib Dem leader is a covert Tory infiltrator by wheeling out the hoary old tale (bizarrely termed “remarkable” by Mr Nelson) that Ming was twice offered a cabinet post in John Major’s Government. If true, and it may very well be, subsequent events seem to suggest that Ming must also have twice refused to join the Tories. Which suggests to me he’s not actually an ‘old Tory’.

But all this is merely an appetiser for Ken’s main course: to promote the notion that the Lib Dems have no choice but to throw in their lot with the Tories in the event of a hung Parliament:

“… people will expect the Conservatives and Liberals to form a working government.” Should Sir Menzies decline Cameron’s hand, he says, Lib Dem voters would despair. “The Liberals really would look as if they’d ignored the public’s message, either refusing to play ball with anybody or helping a defeated Labour party back into office.”

Now I have no fixed view on the subject of coalitions. The Lib Dems have long campaigned for proportional representation which, if enacted, would make arrangements between parties a commonplace. To say that any such partnership must always be with the Labour Party, and never the Tories, seems to me to be an extraordinarily naive negotiating position to adopt.

But, for that very same reason, Ken’s view does not persuade me. If Labour loses its majority, but the Tories fail to win one, will the public really expect the Lib Dems automatically to throw in their lot with the Tories? I don’t think so.

But the imponderables are legion, the permutations various, and the futility of such speculation ceaseless. Which is why Ming is quite right to say in public that he deprecates any talk of hung Parliaments, and that the Lib Dems will campaign simply for maximum votes, and maximum seats. (And why in private it will be the subject that most occupies his campaign team between now and the next election.)