The president of the London House of Commons, Kenneth Clarke of the Conservatives, about the government after Theresa May, the Brexit – and a possible return.
Mr Clarke, no Member of the House of Commons has been a Member of Parliament as long as you have. Can you remember, given the Brexit confusion, that there has ever been greater chaos in British politics?
I have never seen anything so terrible as the present confusion in British politics. The whole thing becomes a tragic farce. The normal political processes have collapsed. It has become impossible to predict what will happen within the next week or two.
Even three years after the June 2016 referendum, there is still no clarity as to whether Britain will remain in the EU or not. Who is responsible for the hanging game?
I have never supported the idea of a referendum. When the then Head of Government, David Cameron, announced the plan, I was still a minister. I had quite a fight with Cameron at the time because I thought the idea was irresponsible. It was the cardinal mistake for people to simply say yes or no to a complex issue like EU membership. The result of the referendum then led to the question of what exactly it should mean when Britain leaves the EU. This question divided all parties. That made it impossible to get a majority in the House of Commons for any option.
Is it just Parliament or are there other reasons for the mess?
In public, too, the different camps are blocking each other. A third are angry supporters of Brexit, a third are angry supporters of the EU and the remaining third are simply fed up with the whole discussion. These people want it to be over at last.
Wouldn’t it somehow be logical if Brexit were to take place in the near future? After all, the British have never really felt at home in the EU since their accession in 1973.
Indeed, the British have never been so warm with the EU. Of course, there is a large part of the population who, like me, are convinced that the country has benefited both politically and economically from EU membership. But there is also a large proportion of the population who feel uncomfortable in a supranational organisation like the EU. There has been an ongoing campaign against the EU, particularly in the media. People should be convinced that the EU is somehow damaging our sovereignty. In the referendum, this mood is then overcooked. This also has to do with the political climate that prevails in all Western democracies. Everywhere there is a similar protest, anger at the establishment and resentment towards immigrants. In the USA it was Trump, in Great Britain the Brexit, in Italy the Salvini, in Germany the alternative for Germany and in France the Yellow West.
Theresa May has only a few days left in office as Prime Minister. Did she underestimate the influence of the Brexiteers in her party?
She made many mistakes. Her main problem was that all along she believed she could lead the entire conservative party to a “soft Brexit”, maintaining links between Britain and the EU. She spent all her time negotiating with the EU and then trying to sell the outcome of these negotiations to the nationalist right in her own party. That could not work. She should have realised much sooner that she can only achieve a majority in the House of Commons if she negotiates across party lines. The deal with the EU that it presented at the end could have obtained a majority if it had made an offer to the backbenchers in the opposition Labour Party. But she is not a politician capable of compromise.
A decision will be made next week on the successor to Theresa May. Do you have any doubt that the election will fall to Boris Johnson?
All those who follow the race for the Tories presidency closely expect Boris to win.
Johnson has threatened a no deal brexit if the EU does not accommodate him. Do you think he would really take the chance?
It may be difficult for him to withdraw his announcements. He is obviously prepared to take the risk of a no-deal brexit. The risk of the UK leaving the EU without an agreement is increasing daily. I do not believe Boris Johnson wants this to happen. He would desperately try to prevent this from happening and bring a modified version of the exit agreement through the House of Commons. But many of his remarks are so rash that there is a danger that he will find himself in the no deal trap. It is becoming increasingly likely that Britain will actually leave the EU without an agreement on 31 October.
You have announced that you would support a motion of censure against a government seeking an unregulated exit. Is there a majority in the House of Commons in favour of such a motion?
That is possible. It would depend on how many Conservative MPs would vote with opposition MPs. The government only has a narrow majority.
And that could theoretically lead to Johnson’s time as prime minister ending relatively quickly with new elections.
In theory, that could happen. That is why Boris Johnson will try even harder to find a negotiated solution with the EU. But once again: during the race for May’s successor, both Boris Johnson and his rival Jeremy Hunt talked extremely stupid stuff to please the right wing of the Tory party.
Some consider Boris Johnson pragmatic enough to find a viable way out of the Brexit dilemma.
He’s extremely pragmatic, that’s true. Boris Johnson actually has no firm principles or convictions. He reacts primarily to events. I’ve known him for decades. I do not believe that he himself has a strong opinion as to whether Britain should be a member of the EU or not. But he has now allied himself with these nationalists. He would not be unhappy if he could change course. Nor do I think he wants to be prime minister for just a few weeks. That is why he could renounce the nationalists who support him in the competition for the Tory presidency. His only problem is that the Northern Ireland arrangement with the EU obliges us to remain in a customs union and in the internal market with the EU. But that cannot be done with the hardliners. That is why he is trying to postpone the solution of the Northern Ireland problem until a later date.
You yourself advocate keeping Great Britain in the customs union and the internal market.
I want Britain’s current trade relations with the EU to remain as they are. With their “No” to the EU in 2016, most people did not want to immediately cut off economic and trade relations with the European Union.
Do you have the impression that voices like yours are less and less pervasive in the Conservative Party?
I am penetrating less and less into the public debate because the mood is heating up more and more. Parts of the classic media and the social networks have turned the Brexit debate into a simplified exchange of blows – between the advocates of a second referendum who believe in staying in the EU and those who no longer want any connections to the continent. Any responsible politician should be aware that a compromise must be found between the two extremes. But in the public debate voices of reason are heard less and less.
What is the likelihood that Britain will remain in the EU?
I would be glad if that were to happen. But I do not think that will happen. I have come to terms with the fact that we will almost certainly be leaving. It is becoming increasingly unlikely that anyone could convince the majority of the population and a majority in the House of Commons simply to stay in the EU. There is no majority in the House of Commons for a second referendum. And I am also not at all sure whether a second referendum would lead to a “yes” to the EU this time. I have always believed in the European project. But I have spoken out in favour of a soft Brexit in order to keep the damage as small as possible. I still hope that it will be possible to leave the political institutions of the EU, but at the same time maintain the current trade and financial relations with the EU.
What would happen if Britain withdrew with Scotland?
Perhaps then the Scots could be successful with their independence aspirations. However, this would lead to severe distortions. Personally, I believe there is only one thing that is even more pointless than Britain’s withdrawal from the EU – Scotland’s withdrawal from the UK. But it must also be seen that Boris Johnson is extremely unpopular in Scotland. There is a frustration there that the English in the House of Commons are ignoring the will of the Scots. And a No-Deal-Brexit would be a steep template for the Scottish nationalists who want independence.
Could Northern Ireland be detached from the United Kingdom?
That too. If a referendum were to be held in Northern Ireland after an unregulated Brexit, a majority would be in favour of unification with the Republic of Ireland. That is what opinion polls show.
How would the EU change without Britain? Would France’s influence then increase?
That, in any case, is what the French hope. As a pro-European force, France is pushing ahead with reforms within the Community. President Macron knows, of course, that a Brexit is damaging the French economy. But at the same time he also knows that by leaving the EU the British can no longer, as usual, slow down attempts to bring the EU closer together. And the EU states should actually be more closely interlinked politically and economically. But whether this can be achieved in the face of increasing nationalism is another question. The situation in countries like Poland and Hungary is not changing because the British are leaving.
Could Britain join again at some point after leaving the EU?
I would hope that the younger generation would make this possible. But that would require the EU to cope with all the other crises. That is also necessary, because only a consolidated European Union can play an effective role in the world. But I do not expect the Brexit decision to be reversed very quickly in Britain. Since developments in British politics cannot currently be predicted even for a period of two weeks, I will not make a forecast for the next decade now.