Ken's smile fails him as Major has something to laugh at


FOR once Mr John Major had something to smile about. When he heard that his former left-wing chancellor, Mr Ken Clarke, and the right-wing Eurosceptic, Mr John Redwood, had formed an extraordinary alliance, Mr Major burst out laughing.

Although the right wing of the party may despise Mr Clarke for his pro-European views, the Tory faithful love him. His cultivated down-to-earth image and relaxed style appeal both to leading businessmen and the party's blue-rinse brigade.

"His speciality is the `Good Old Ken' approach", says one political journalist, the bloke whose knock-about style disarms hostile questioning by implying that nothing should be taken too seriously.

However, image, laughter, appeal and style failed to win the day for Mr Clarke yesterday.

In his trade-mark scuffed brown hush puppy shoes, longish hair and, as even his friends suggest, the sartorial style of Oxfam, Mr Clarke likes nothing better than a good pint of bitter, a decent cigar, and an afternoon on the terraces watching Nottingham Forest, followed by a jazz session in the evening. He might not seem like a typical Tory party leader but he thrives on political intrigue and relishes a good argument.

"Ken is the kind of politician who will cross a road in order to get into a fight," says Mr Douglas Hurd, the former foreign secretary and close friend.

Mr Clarke is proud of his "working class roots". Born in 1940, the son of a watchmaker, he grew up in a Nottinghamshire mining village. His interest in politics stems from an early age when he would have vigorous arguments with his grandfather, who was a communist. At the age of seven, he declared that his ambition was to be a politician.

On his first day at Nottingham High School the young Ken was beaten up because of his working class accent. He promptly lost it, cultivating instead, as he says, a "David Frost, classless, Sixties accent

He met his wife, Gillian, at Cambridge, where he read history and law. He also became a leading member of the university's Conservative coterie. This group would eventually all becoming Tory cabinet ministers, furthering each other's careers as best they could.

At Mr Clarke's wedding, Mr John Gummer, former agriculture minister, was his best man; in the last few weeks, he was one of his campaign managers. Other guests at the wedding included the former chancellor of the exchequer, Mr Norman Lamont, and the former home secretary Mr Michael Howard.

Although the tabloid newspapers have been less than kind about his wife's hairstyle and taste in clothes, Gillian Clarke is a very bright and respected medieval historian who shuns the limelight. They have two children, Kenneth, a banker, and Susan, a nurse, who sold her story to the newspapers when she became a punk-rocker.

After Cambridge, Mr Clarke rebelled by refusing to practise in London; instead he became a well-known barrister on the Midlands circuit. In 1970 he was elected to the House of Commons, where he still uses his legal background, trying to trap opponents into making gaffes.

Although Mr Clarke's campaign team has portrayed him as the leader the Labour Party would most fear, the Prime Minister, Mr Blair, has stated he thinks Mr Clarke is lazy and prone to making gaffes himself.

Few would disagree with this assessment. After all, Mr Clarke cheerfully admitted that he had never read the Maastricht Treaty because "it was a waste of time". When he was promoted to Health Secretary he declared immediately, while smoking a cigar: "I don't take exercise of any kind myself."

He also famously described Consett's steel works as "one of the best in Europe", clearly forgetting that it had been closed for 10 years, and a week later praised a nappy factory which had gone bankrupt.

"Ken is a bull in a china shop at times, but at least he cares about the china," insists one Tory MP.