Sketch: Ken Clarke stands up for Bilderberg


Generating laughter as subtle as a sledgehammer, Ken Clarke put in a hilarious performance defending the secretive goings-on of the Bilderberg Group this afternoon.

This shadowy gathering of world leaders – academics, bankers, company bosses and politicians – has been meeting annually since 1954 for cosy off-the-record chit-chats about the affairs that affect us all.

These meetings must drip with elitism. The latest one took place at the Grove hotel in Hertfordshire – the same luxury destination where the Google Big Tent took place last month. It's a destination frequented by the England football team, no less. Even the vast majority of those actually in government are outsiders to this very exclusive club.

Clarke is now merely a minister without portfolio in the government – someone to call on if anything unduly pesky pops up. He may not have much to do in Whitehall these days, but many years of life clinging on near the summit of public life have made him a stalwart defender of the establishment. That was his task this afternoon.

It didn't even seem to matter he was speaking for the Bilderberg Group itself rather than the coalition. This was bizarre and even baffling – or at least it was until Clarke revealed he was on the group's steering committee. He explained, in response to a question from a bemused Tory backbencher, that most members of the group only attended one or two meetings, but by some strange twist of fate, he had found himself a "core" member for the last decade or so.

Fancy that! The sense of informal happenstance seemed to be being deliberately cultivated by Clarke, whose brain – if cut in half – would resemble either a teenager's very messy bedroom or the work of a particularly crazed abstract expressionist. Regrettably, he explained, he was about to be retired from the committee because of his age. "Other jobs are timeless, but in this particular role I have met the end of my allotted span." Clarke will be laughing important and worrying matters off for the British establishment for some time to come.

Not everyone was convinced. Left-winger Michael Meacher, who raised the question which summoned Clarke to the Commons chamber, noted Clarke's "filibuster" of a reply and complained about the government's hopelessness when it comes to transparency. For a while it looked as if he was going to miss the opportunity to use the phrase "behind closed doors", but he did not disappoint. His suspicion that the world's Important People were gathering to sort out the little people's lives in private veered perilously close to conspiracy theory. "They have come here," he hissed, "to concert their plans to deal with a particularly awkward stage for western capitalism." The Bilderberg Group is evidently just not cool for lefties. Dennis Skinner barked: "I wouldn't be seen dead with them!"

Clarke could not help but mock. "I would only advise [Meacher] he finds different people to exchange tweets with on this internet," he said. Clarke does not spend much time surfing the interweb, it seems. He would see about getting Meacher an invitation to the next meeting, but warned he would have to consult Ed Balls, first. This was hilarious because, he revealed, Balls himself had attended the latest Bilderberg meeting! Cue more amused faux-uproar, as Clarke also revealed such eminent figures as "Peter Mandelson" had attended.

Speaker John Bercow suggested it might be better to refer to Mandy as the Lord Mandelson of Foy, but Clarke wasn't having any of it. It takes more than a little squeaker like Bercow to disturb his equanimity. "We all attend extremely informally", he told the Speaker, who muttered to all and sundry that he was only "gently teasing". Bercow was probably grateful when Balls distracted attention from the slapdown by observing: "The idea of the Lord Mandelson attending any meeting informally is not anything I've experienced."

The exchanges were rapidly turning into a love-in (which, given the individuals concerned, was not a pretty sight). Balls put forward an unsettlingly out-of-character straight bat. His series of questions, which rigidly defended the Bilderberg Group's activities, were so buttoned up even Clarke was caught off guard. "He's being defensive," Ken gaped. "He's behaving a little more seriously than I did." There was almost a hint of disappointment in his voice.

It took those on the fringes of British politics to challenge this smokescreen of gaseous bonhomie. As well as the old bruisers of the left,  diehard eurosceptics like Philip Davies and Philip Hollobone stood up to ask suspicious questions about whether the EU referendum had been discussed. It had, Clarke admitted, "come up from time to time". Well well well! Those inclined to do so took this as incontrovertible proof that secret arrangements were being made to ensure the European Union lasts at least 1,000 years.

Clarke is very, very good at laughing things off. He has been doing it for years and tried it again this afternoon. What was a very funny half-hour was also deeply worrying: just because a politician is smiling doesn't mean they're thinking completely different inside.