Ken Clarke has been caught on camera describing Theresa May as a “bloody difficult woman” and predicting that Michael Gove as prime minister would go to war with three countries at once, as he made a series of unguarded remarks about the Conservative leadership candidates.
The veteran Tory, who has served in five cabinet roles including home secretary and chancellor, made disobliging comments about each of the candidates in turn after giving a television interview to Sky.
He was recorded as he had a conversation with Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary, apparently unaware that the camera was rolling.
In the clip, Clarke was encouraged to share his views by Rifkind, who said: “I don’t mind who wins as long as Gove comes third. As long as Gove doesn’t come in the final two I don’t mind what happens.”
Clarke replied: “I don’t think the membership will vote for Gove. I remember being in a discussion about something to do with somewhere like Syria or Iraq and he was so wild that I remember exchanging looks with Liam Fox, who is much more rightwing than me.
“We were exchanging views and Liam was raising eyebrows. I think with Michael as prime minister we’d go to war with at least three countries at once.”
He added: “He did us all a favour by getting rid of Boris. The idea of Boris as prime minister is ridiculous.”
“Well, I don’t think they even cared very much either way,” Rifkind replied.
Clarke continued: “She is not one of the tiny band of lunatics who think we can have a sort of glorious economic future outside the single market ... So long as she understands that she’s not to deliver on some of the extremely stupid things she’s been saying.”
He revealed that he might vote for Stephen Crabb tactically in the first round before backing May but said she was not an easy person to have as a colleague.
“Theresa is a bloody difficult woman, but you and I worked with Margaret Thatcher,” he said, as both men burst out laughing. “I get on all right with her and she is good. She’s too narrow on her department ... She’s been at the Home Office far too long, so I only know in detail what her views are on the Home Office. She doesn’t know much about foreign affairs.”
Friends of Clarke later revealed he had been strongly encouraged by staff in his office to complain about Sky News broadcasting his comments. But the former chancellor resisted, saying he had only said what he really thought.
Rifkind, who was also heard speaking about Gove, later told PA: “My comments speak for themselves, and they appear to be shared by quite a high proportion of the human race.”
David Cameron’s spokeswoman was later asked whether the prime minister also finds May a “bloody difficult woman”.
“No, she’s done a very good job as home secretary,” the official said.
Clarke’s remarks about May caused a storm on social media, with many people tweeting positively about the label under the hashtag of #BloodyDifficultWoman.
Guy Opperman, a Tory MP supporting her leadership bid, said: “I worked for Theresa Mayfor 3 yrs in Home Office. Tough, kind, hardworking + yes sometimes a #BloodyDifficultWoman but would be a top PM.”
Many female Twitter users expressed pride at being “bloody difficult women” themselves, suggesting it is unlikely to have done May’s campaign to be Conservative leader and prime minister much harm.
Clarke’s remarks were made public by Sky News as Conservative MPs took part in a secret ballot for the first round of voting in their leadership contest, which saw May take a commanding lead among MPs, with Fox eliminated and Crabb withdrawing.
Clarke has already announced that he will step down at the next election. The 75-year-old is one of Westminster’s three longest-serving MPs, having entered parliament with the Labour MPs Sir Gerald Kaufman and Dennis Skinner in the 1970 election.
He has a reputation for plain-speaking and has frequently clashed with Eurosceptic colleagues because of his strongly pro-EU views. Clarke unsuccessfully ran to be Conservative leader himself on three occasions – in 1997, 2001 and 2005 – and has served in the cabinets of the past three Conservative prime ministers: Cameron, Sir John Major and Margaret Thatcher.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010