Kenneth Clarke has launched a frontal assault on David Cameron’s EU reform plans, declaring that he was seeking to dismantle one of Margaret Thatcher’s greatest legacies by challenging the free movement of people in the EU.
In a provocative intervention on the eve of the Rochester and Strood byelection, the former Conservative chancellor also accused John Major of encouraging people to vote Ukip, after he floated plans to reform free movement on behalf of No 10.
In an interview with the former political editor Michael White at a Guardian Membership event, Clarke said: “If you all start saying how wise Mr Farage was and how we must persuade everybody to let us tackle this problem [of immigration] it is not surprising, angry, disappointed, protesting people go out and vote for Mr Farage. I would have hoped that John would have avoided that trap. I expected him to do so. We should have talked about what he was going to say.”
• Challenged the prime minister’s plans to hold an in/out EU referendum by the end of 2017, on the grounds that such polls do not settle matters. He said referendums are generally favoured by the likes of the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
• Claimed that Thatcher became embittered in her old age as she disavowed key achievements such as the creation of the EU’s single market. “In her embittered old age her friends persuaded her that it was all Europe that had got her,” he said. “She led a pro-European government.”
• Expressed astonishment that the prime minister had sacked the highly able Dominic Grieve as attorney general in the recent reshuffle.
• Warned that the Russian parliament would cheer if Britain declined to accept rulings from the European court of human rights.
Clarke issued a warning when he was sacked in the summer reshuffle that he would speak out on the EU in the runup to any referendum in 2017, by which time he will have been an MP for 47 years. At the Guardian last night he let rip, and said fellow EU leaders would not agree to change the free movement of people on the grounds that it is a fundamental tenet of the EU and had been championed by Thatcher in the creation of the single market.
He said: “The idea that you are going to make Brussels give up freedom of movement of labour – Margaret Thatcher was an advocate of this. It was a British Conservative government that gave momentum to the single market.
“The Conservative party and the Labour party have been advocates of freedom of movement of goods, services, capital and labour. It is one of the underpinning things of greater prosperity that we are all trying to get back to.”
Clarke said he had spoken to Major before he delivered his speech in Berlin in which the former prime minister said free movement would have to be placed on the negotiating table in the light of the high levels of EU migration to the UK. Major’s speech was designed to prepare the ground for a key intervention by Cameron in which he will set out his plans to reform free movement.
But Clarke accused the former prime minister of “feeding the credibility” of Ukip by calling for changes to free movement. He said: “My old friend John – we discussed his speech in Berlin. I think he thinks he is being helpful by trying to see if he can get some concessions that will get us off the hook. But immigration should not be central to this reform thing.
“I understand why Eurosceptics bang on about European immigration. They are trying to get David to add to his menu for reform things which they know are incompatible with membership of the EU and he can’t get them.
“Next time I see John I shall ask him because it is all feeding the credibility of Farage ... The free movement of labour – we [have] signed up to that for years. Just as a single market means the free movement of goods, the free movement of services, the free movement of labour. That is irremovable. It’s our own negligence that stopped us years ago having tougher rules against people coming here just for benefits. The treaties were never intended to do that. Very few do.”
Clarke mocked the prime minister’s plans as he called on ministers to challenge Ukip. “Of the 400,000 Frenchmen in London – which of the hedge fund managers can stay and which have got to go back?” he asked.
Clarke said of the Tory response to Farage: “We are giving him too much credibility. It is the background to this current byelection. You’ve got to have the courage to challenge some of this.”
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