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No regrets for Ken Clarke as he bows out of Parliament after 49 years

The Father of the House said he was enjoying being an MP as much as he did when he first arrived in Westminster in 1970.

Ken Clarke, MP for Rushcliffe, and Father of the House in his office at the House of Commons on his last day as an MP after 49 years (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Ken Clarke, MP for Rushcliffe, and Father of the House in his office at the House of Commons on his last day as an MP after 49 years (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

By Harriet Line, PA Deputy Political Editor

Former chancellor Ken Clarke has said he has no regrets as he stands down as an MP after 49 years in the Commons.

The Father of the House – a title bestowed on the longest continually serving parliamentarian – said he was enjoying the job as much as he did when he first arrived in Westminster in 1970.

In a career spanning almost half a century, he served in numerous government posts under Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron.

He said he was “not that bothered” about standing down because he had been planning it for so long, but admitted: “I suppose I ought to feel more emotional than I do but I don’t.”

It was one of my bad habits to keep standing for the leadership of the Conservative Party. I was too pro-European. Ken Clarke

Asked if he had any regrets, he told the PA news agency: “Not at all. I’ve enjoyed it.

“I had this mad idea I wanted to be an MP, became an MP quite young, loved it from the first moment and just immersed myself in it, I greatly enjoy it.

“I am still a political addict – I enjoy it as much as I did in the first year I was here.”

Often described as the “best prime minister Britain never had”, he said it was a “great club to belong to because nobody ever knows how bad you might have been”.

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Ken Clarke on his last day as an MP in his Commons office (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

“I’ve made no secret of the fact that I wanted to be prime minister – it was one of my bad habits to keep standing for the leadership of the Conservative Party. I was too pro-European.”

Mr Clarke described how Parliament had a “public school atmosphere” when he arrived, but his intake of MPs – a “post-war, social mobility generation” – was the first to start changing it.

“It was more formal, but very high powered… much more powerful – vis-a-vis the government – than it is now.

“It was an age of deference still – it was held in very high regard and in critical regard by the public.

“We’ve now gone to the other extreme – the public hold Parliament in a slightly brainless way, in near contempt – convinced that somehow the MPs are all only pursuing their own interests. It was the complete contrast in the old days.”

Mr Clarke said there was “very little” constituency work then, and free postage and stationery for MPs had only just been introduced.

“It was a very limited amount, you had to go and sign for your allocation. Most MPs didn’t use it – we got very few letters.

“We now all have large staffs and mountains of mail and emails and everything else, and you’re really the equivalent of the Citizens Advice bureau.

If you look back over the last month or two and this Brexit crisis, most of the Cabinet have no idea what the policy is - they’ve got no more idea than I have Ken Clarke

“In terms of holding the Government to account, increasingly we’ve had governments who resent being held to account, who think Parliament is a nuisance, their press officers can’t control the publicity that comes out of it, and so it really ought not to discuss anything serious.

“And trying to bully the Speaker into making sure it never has anything very serious to consider – that’s grown ever since Tony Blair and its been getting very strong recently. But for (John) Bercow the Parliament would have been left discussing nothing in particular most days.”

He criticised the lack of collective responsibility in recent cabinets and claimed many ministers have “no idea” about current policy.

Reminiscing about Mrs Thatcher’s tight ship, Mr Clarke said: “We used to have bloody great arguments… but it was the cabinet that made government policy.

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Ken Clarke, as chancellor, with the famous Budget-box at the Treasury (Sean Dempsey/PA)

“If you look back over the last month or two and this Brexit crisis, most of the Cabinet have no idea what the policy is – they’ve got no more idea than I have.”

Asked if advisers now yield too much power, he replied: “We don’t want a half-baked presidential system with a president who isn’t really accountable to Parliament or the courts or anybody else.”

Mr Clarke said having the Tory whip withdrawn over Brexit in September was “entirely inconsequential” because he was standing down, but said such an approach was a “foolish way to run a party”.

Campaigning for the Conservatives at the December election, however, he said, could “baffle” his constituents.

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The Father of the House of Commons has been an MP for 49 years (Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament)

“I have a remain constituency and I think a lot of my constituents would be slightly amused to see me campaigning in favour of a government which doesn’t acknowledge that I support it.”

On serving as a minister under Mrs Thatcher, who he described as the best prime minister he worked with, he said: “It was great fun if you could stand the hassle.

“She loved political rows and all she ever did was promote me but she was a conviction politician – never read newspapers, took no notice of them…

“We never had a popular policy: we were a good government taking tough, difficult decisions, making all kinds of structural changes to the economy which were much overdue and which did turn the country around.”

He warned Boris Johnson that he could not continue his “crash, bang, wallop” approach to running the country – but said prime ministers tend to “settle down” once they get used to the job.

Mr Clarke said he was looking forward to watching more cricket, reading and travelling – but living a “slightly less heavy-paced life” when he retires.

Asked if he would accept a peerage and continue his political career in the House of Lords, he said: “I’d take it if I was offered.”

PA

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