The Father of the House loves the EU but doesnt want another referendum, called Theresa May bloody difficult yet backed her deal three times, and finds the political deadlock both annoying and hugely entertaining
The twin pillars of Tory pro-Europeanism, the two men who defended that lonely cause in the Thatcher heyday and through the long trudge of the Major years, have responded very differently to Brexit. On one side stands Michael Heseltine, belated darling of the remainers, the lion in winter who won a deluge of Twitter love for his speech before a vast crowd at last months Peoples Vote rally, where he spoke lyrically of his lost European dream. And there, on the other, is Kenneth Clarke, 79 this summer, not in the House of Lords but still slugging it out as a working MP, on his feet asking pointed questions, moving amendments in nail-biting midnight sessions, even tabling the alternative Brexit proposal continued membership of a customs union that came closest to success, falling short by just three votes.
It is not merely that Hezza, as Clarke calls him, has retired from the Commons while Clarke is still there: Father of the House, no less, in recognition of the fact that he has served continuously since 1970, a record matched only by Dennis Skinner. It also points to a deeper difference. Clarke is a devout pragmatist, an evangelical realist. Pro-European he may be, but that faith is trumped by his deference to the real world, a phrase he uses no fewer than five times when the two of us meet in his corner office at Portcullis House.
And so, while Heseltine or the next generation of (formerly) Conservative pro-Europeans such as Anna Soubry are holding out for a second referendum that might keep Britain in the EU, Clarke is committed to accepting reality, as he sees it. Unless and until I can see an opportunity of actually reversing Brexit and restoring a stable membership of the European Union, then in the real world I concentrate on minimising the damage, he says, sitting behind a desk that could only belong to Ken Clarke. (On it are several copies of the Nottingham Post; a cassette of Artie Shaws greatest hits; and a small booklet that turns out to be the Rules and By-laws of the Garrick Club.) Only an ideologue deals with the world as he would wish it to be, as opposed to the world as it is. When he recalls Edward Heath, the first Tory prime minister Clarke served as a frontbencher, he describes him as a fanatic pro-European. It is not a compliment.