Hurray for all the Kens

The phoney war is over, and Ken Clarke has declared himself in the race to be the first Tory leader since the last election. By the way, whatever happened to that Howard chap…?

Good for him. And good for Britain too, if he gets it. Nobody benefitted from a succession of dreary Tory also-rans bleating about asylum-seekers and the single currency.

Of course, a Ken at Tory headquarters would create more than a headache for my own party — or maybe not.

The last general election — and the Cheadle by-election even more — proved that Lib-Dem seats are not vulnerable to Tory resurgence, even when they use hard-ball tactics. The fact is that both Tories and Lib-Dems will be looking to chiefly score off Labour at the next election. Ken Clarke would vastly boost the Tories ability to do this — but probably not in the seats where Lib-Dems are currently second to Labour.

What the nation cannot sustain is a fourth Labour term. The inevitable consequence of successive victories is the weakening of the party in power. John Major’s surprise election win sowed the seeds of the Tory collapse which followed it. Labour — New, Old, and Nearly New — is already reaching towards to point of implosion, held together by the memory of a hunger for power which drove them so vigorously in 1997.

In fact, chances are very strong that New-Old Labour will go the way of the Major-Hague-Smith-Howard Conservatives once they fall from grace. And Ken Clarke may just be the man to put them there.

That is, unless the other Ken, Ken Livingstone, doesn’t wake up and do it himself. Because just as the Tories ran out of leaders, Labour is also running short of the flamboyant figures that win over the electorate. Blair will be gone. Cook is gone. Brown may be a great chancellor (or he may be a cardboard-cut-out for Ken Clarke’s chancellorship), but he has yet to inspire anyone but the most hard-core Labour brain-washee. Two Jags and a big thump Prescott is never going to be prime-minister. Ken Livingstone is easily the most appealing figure in the post-Blair world. Just ask the Londoners.

And this is the tragedy — perhaps — of the Blairite vision. He is ultimately doomed to failure because he is caught between two Kens. One, from a different party, who is politically very like him, and yet seems so much more substantial, so much more trustworthy. The other, from the same party but politically so different, is equally larger and more real than he is.

And where does this leave the Liberal-Democrats? Look beyond the next election to the following one. Labour at the bottom end of their electoral cycle. But the Tories decapitated in theirs. Because this is the devil’s bargain of a Clarke leadership. Clarke is their best chance to win the next election. But there is almost no chance that he could fight the following one. He will quite simply be too old. If they really we want to win this time, they must do so at the cost of abandoning the dream of successive Tory terms as they had under Thatcher.

The seeds of a Liberal Demorat General Election win are sown now, or they are not sown at all. And, yes. They will be sown.

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