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‘Affable, invisible … the man with a brilliant future behind him.’ Thus Varsity magazine appraised Kenneth Clarke’s term as President of the Cambridge Union in the summer of 1963. Dominated by his opposition to the admission of women students to the Union, Clarke’s Presidency had been less than distinguished. But Varsity, like so many commentators throughout Clarke’s political career, seriously underestimated a politician who, three decades later, has emerged as a strong man within a weak Conservative administration, often tipped as a possible successor to John Major should the bailiffs be summoned to Number Ten.
Clarke, as Andy McSmith explains in this fast-paced and highly readable biography, is above all a survivor who has been a government Minister since 1979. Despite his reputation as the ‘thinking man’s lager lout’, Clarke is an old-fashioned 1960s One-Nation Tory who played the tough guy with considerable adroitness in order to survive under Thatcher’s hard-line administration. Displaying the same joviality which had seen him sign up for both the Campaign for Social Democracy and the Conservative Club on arrival at Cambridge, Clarke frankly admitted in the 1970s that it was only the arithmetic of Britain’s first-past-the-post election system which kept him in the same party as the British nationalists of the Tory right. His pragmatism served him well as he progressed from being the youngest high-flier in the Heath government to the Minister responsible for introducing the highly controversial ‘internal market’ in the NHS under Thatcher, and now to the happy position of Chancellor of the Exchequer with an economy recovering from recession.
Clarke’s presence at the heart of the Tory government demonstrates that the mix of free-market liberalism and British nationalism to which Mrs Thatcher gave her name never really took root in the Conservative government. Right-wing Tory rebels who plead that the EC is destroying Britain as a nation-state, or free-market ideologues who want to privatize whatever remains of the welfare state, find Kenneth Clarke an obstacle to their ambitions. From Clarke’s point of view, social instability and trade barriers are bad for business. The rise and rise of this most flexible of politicians, according to Andy McSmith’s engaging account, may not be enough to stop the cracks in a Tory Party now beyond repair.