The West Bridgford branch of Côte Brasserie, in the heart of Middle England, is abuzz with silver-haired ladies lunching. It is late December. I am eyeing up the entrance for the inimitable outline of the town’s outgoing member of parliament — aka the nation’s most treasured Tory elder statesman.

Hands clasped behind his back, Ken Clarke shuffles into view. With his tweed jacket and jumper riddled with holes and spattered in garden soil, the 79-year-old former chancellor, education, health and justice secretary looks like a gentleman of the allotment. Fellow diners bustle over to deliver festive greetings. He eases into the slender chair and apologises for being late: he was interrupted by too many former constituents.

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