He was magnificent. Ken Clarke spoke for saving Britain, and he spoke for the three-quarters of MPs who never supported this madness. But on his own benches he is the lone refuser, the only one who will vote today against what most of Clarke’s colleagues and almost all on the Labour benches know to be an approaching Brexit calamity.
Like a prophet crying in the wilderness – dismissed as “purple and quavery”, and his words as a “pitiful harrumph” in the Daily Mail – his speech will resonate down the Brexit years.
How did it come to this act of collective cowardice? Because rebelling against your own leadership is easy, and usually delights the voters with a show of sterling independence. But to rebel against the voters – that takes formidable courage.
“Now I’m being told I’m somehow an enemy of the people!” Clarke protested with outrage.
He had earned his right to make a sweeping dismissal of the referendum for the absurdity of such “an enormous question answered with a single yes or no on one day”, since he alone had voted against holding one. The real betrayal of voters, he said, was for MPs not to vote with their conscience and judgment.
With no notes, Clarke’s 17-minute tour de force was a history lesson about his generation. He has spent a political career spanning nearly 50 years hauling Britain into the modern world, rescuing it from its final “appalling” colonial disaster, Suez. We had no role once we had lost an empire, he said, and our economy “was becoming a laughing stock”.
As a young man he worked with Edward Heath, easing the country into the common market, where “our membership restored our national self-confidence”, “made us more valuable to our US allies” and more secure against Russia in the cold war.
But for Margaret Thatcher, he said, there would never have been a single market: it was her pressure that broke down those barriers – “and we benefited more than any other state”. Brexit is “baffling to every friend throughout the world”.
Wise scorn was poured on that trading “wonderland” down the rabbit hole, where “nice men like President Trump and President Erdoğan” are “impatient to abandon their normal protectionism, queuing up to give us access to their markets”.