Clarke rules himself out of Tory leadership race

After a series of meetings between Ken Clarke and Michael Howard yesterday, the former Tory Chancellor has ruled himself out of the race for the Conservative leadership - apparently leaving the way clear for Mr Howard to take over unopposed.

Mr Clarke, who lost out on the leadership two years ago when IDS won the backing of a majority of the constituency party, is believed to have sought assurances from the right-winger that centrist, pro-Europeans could find a place on his frontbench.

Today's withdrawal would suggest that Mr Clarke is satisfied that Howard's pledge to lead the party from the centre – and to draw on talent from both wings of the party – is genuine.

Michael Portillo ruled himself out yesterday afternoon, and today party chairman Teresa May and John Redwood declared themselves out of the race, leaving the field clear.

If there is only one candidate by the time nominations close on November 6, under party rules that candidate will be named as leader. The voluntary party may then be asked to endorse the candidate in a vote. Should others choose to enter the race, the closure of the first ballot will be midday on November 11.

As it stands today, the Howard camp say that they have a majority of the parliamentary party behind them, claiming support from 90 of the Tories 165 MPs.

With Britain, in common with the largest economic entities in Europe, dominated by centre-left, social democratic parties, there will need to be a shift in emphasis from the Tories to transform the party into a genuine election threat once more.

If he makes the journey toward the centre, Michael Howard will be an unlikely sponsor of a voter-friendly, ecumenical Conservatism, but that is apparently his intention on the basis of yesterday's launch speech.

However, the Folkestone and Hythe MP has assented to some of the most unpopular and controversial legislation of Conservative government – in the poll tax and Section 28, both of which are now defunct.

Howard's experience shadowing Gordon Brown could see him gain some early ground on Labour by concentrating on the growth of individual debt (which may top £1,100bn next year), the burgeoning government deficit (reported today to be more than £22bn) and means-testing for pensions.

Top-up fees, foundation hospitals, potentially damaging conclusions from the Hutton Inquiry, souring labour relations and increased union militancy – all offer ammunition for a united Tory party ahead of the 2005 general election.


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