Jacob blesses Isaac, by Jacob Assereto (1600-49)
Ken Clarke speaks off the cuff about the EU without first getting the go-ahead from Downing Street, but writing about it in the Daily Telegraph this morning will have been a different matter. It is impossible to believe that his piece, in which familiar arguments for Britain's membership of the EU are set out, will not have been cleared in advance. Indeed, the choice of vehicle is significant. Party members are more likely to read the Daily Telegraph than any other Fleet Street paper, and Clarke's pitch to them is thus David Cameron's pitch to them.
It is all a part of the agree-to-disagree EU policy that the Prime Minister has come round to. On the one hand, the Government will support continued EU membership after any post-2015 renegotiation. (That is the implication of his big speech on Europe in January.) On the other, country and Party will get an In-Out referendum, in which they are free to disagree. It is true that the small print of this deal is worth studying closely. For example, Cabinet Ministers won't be free to campaign against the Government's position, as Harold Wilson's were in 1975.
Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove, Philip Hammond, Owen Paterson and perhaps five others will thus have to make a choice – assuming, of course, that they're still in the Cabinet then and that the Party is still in Government. Clarke's article is both distinct and indistinguishable from the standard case that will be made for leaving. It is distinct in its sense of mischief and chutzpah. He teases Conrad Black, his former fellow Bilderberger and a former Telegraph proprietor, about the completion of a US-Canada trade deal.
Clarke believes that Black and other proprietors of what he habitually refers to as "the right-wing press" (the phrase is not intended as a compliment) are responsible for whipping up Euro-sceptic feeling. Clarke is tweaking the tail of the ex-proprietor in the paper he once owned. He also prays Margaret Thatcher in aid, citing what she did in government rather than what she said later – "handbag swinging, never giving in, never giving up,
she alternately charmed and cajoled Europe into the reforms which she saw
were so clearly needed".
The nub of Clarke's argument is that Britain is more likely to reach a trade deal with the U.S as part of the EU bloc than on its own. There is no good reason simply to swallow this assertion: as the Bruges Group points out, Britain and America have one of the closest trading relationships in the world. Nor will an EU-US deal necessarily be better than one that America and Britain could negotiate bilaterally. French lobbying has already ensured that the media and entertainment industries won't be included in any US-EU deal – which will hit Britain particularly hard.
None the less, the nearer a referendum gets, the louder Clarke's case will be made – and not just by him. Caroline Spelman makes the same argument on this site this morning, citing the car industry, which is worried about a trade war if Britain leaves. In the book of Genesis, Rebekah tricks Jacob into Esau's inheritance by disguising the latter as the former – thus deceiving his father. The old man almost spots the dodge. "The voice is Jacob's voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau," he says. The hands are the hands of Clarke, but the voice is Cameron's voice.