THROUGHOUT HIS political career, Kenneth Clarke has been a biffer. Once he decides on an objective, he usually charges straight towards it, intending to brush obstacles out of the way rather than think them out of the way. Equally, he has never believed in guarding his tongue. He relies on force of personality to get him out of any scrapes that loose talk gets him into.
So what are we to make of the rumours that he will support Michael Portillo in a post-election leadership campaign? The first point is that they will annoy a lot of Tory MPs. One difficulty about being an elected politician is that it is sometimes necessary to deny self-evident truths. Over the next few weeks, Tory MPs and candidates will have to tour their constituencies insisting that William Hague can win. It will not help their temper if they are greeted on the doorstep along the following lines: "Isn't this a waste of time, lad? Wouldn't you be better off working out who'll be your next leader? That's what Ken Clarke is doing."
The Tory mood will not be improved by reports that Mr Clarke has been talking to John Stevens, the leader of the Pro-European Conservative Party, a group that splintered away from the Tories, in order to persuade him not to stand against Michael Portillo. John Stevens, a pleasant chap, is also honest about his federalist ambitions, unlike the Euro-fanatics who have stayed in the Tory party.
But Mr Stevens has the political momentum of a dying gnat. The idea that Mr Clarke has conferred a favour on Mr Portillo by begging Mr Stevens to stay out of the contest is risible. This has merely saved Mr Stevens the pounds 500 for his deposit - or, more likely, persuaded him to spend that money siphoning off a couple of hundred Tory votes in a seat where they might make a difference.
There is also a question of principle. By talking to Mr Stevens, Mr Clarke has opened himself to the suspicion that he is trying to orchestrate the pro- European Tories' campaign. MPs have been deprived of the Whip for lesser offences than that.
When Mr Clarke was readopted by his constituency, he assured them that he would abide by the constraints of loyalty. It will be for them to judge whether those assurances have been met. Mr Clarke is no doubt calculating that he is safe, because any moves against him would stir up too much trouble. For the moment, he is right.
What of Mr Portillo? Intellectually, he is the most interesting figure at the forefront of British politics. It is hard to define where he now stands, but how could that be otherwise? He does not know. Since 1997, Mr Portillo has been on a quest. He was as cultured as any member of the John Major government, with an intellectual hinterland drawing on old European civilisation. His father was a poet, while his mother's family had been connoisseurs and collectors of modern Scottish art. Mr Portillo has literature, music and art in his soul.
He has also thought hard about political philosophy. At Cambridge, he was taught by pupils of Michael Oakeshott, that most elegant and elusive of writers. Oakeshott was a bohemian who believed in order, an incisive thinker who deprecated rationalism in politics, a romantic suspicious of romanticism, and a Tory who thought that Tory dogma ought to be an oxymoron. To him, Toryism was a prejudice and a dream. He once wrote that civilisation was only a collective dream.
So Michael Portillo came to Toryism out of instinct, Oakeshott and Wagner. This makes for a broad political intelligence, especially in a man who was determined never to become a monoglot politician: an aim devoutly shared by his wife, Carolyn. …