Popular Ken sums up Tory dilemma

FORMER Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke stands head and shoulders above all other Conservatives as the one Tory MP liked by the electorate at large.

FORMER Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke stands head and shoulders above all other Conservatives as the one Tory MP liked by the electorate at large.

But to elderly Tory activists, who have memories of Mr Clarke's enthusiasm for the single European currency and British membership of the EU, he is the one person they cannot stomach.

That's the dilemma facing the Conservative Party when it comes to choosing a new leader. Whether it is MPs only or all party members who make the final decision, do they back Clarke as the person to bring home the millions of Tory voters lost since 1992, or do they choose someone who could be unelectable among the electorate at large?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Dr Liam Fox, David Cameron, David Davis, Theresa May, Michael Ancram, and David Willetts all fancy their chances of becoming leader, but the likelihood is that Clarke and Davis will go head to head.

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David Cameron, who is one day destined to become party leader, is a class act who appeals to the modernisers and inclusive wing of the party. He also has the advantage of age on his side. That inexperience may count against him.

In the leadership contest, the centre left vote will be fractured between Rifkind, Cameron, and Clarke and Clarke's supporters are clearly hoping that their man will win through to challenge the favourite David Davis.

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Suffolk South MP Tim Yeo, who has designs on becoming Conservative Party chairman and to shake the moribund Central Office machine out of its lethargy, has no doubts that Clarke is the person who can win the next election for the Tories.

He believes two things have changed since 1997, when Clarke lost out to William Hague, and 2001 when Iain Duncan Smith defeated him.

"Europe is no longer an issue. Just as the voters of France and Holland, in rejecting the European Constitution, let Tony Blair off the hook, they have also allowed the Conservative Party to put the whole issue of Europe on the back burner.

"Europe should no longer dominate Tory Party thinking. Our obsession with it should be ended.

"Secondly, the party is hungry for power and to win the election. By choosing IDS in 2001, party members showed they did not have that hunger. I believe Michael Howard showed us the way and that Kenneth Clarke is the one candidate who can take us on to victory.

"I do not believe there is the antipathy toward Ken that there has been in the past. There is a recognition that we cannot afford to jettison someone who has broad electoral appeal."

Mr Yeo added that the next five weeks, before the start of the Tory Party conference, would be crucial. "The Blackpool gathering will be the opportunity for all candidates to set out their stalls, and during that time Ken will be making a number of important policy speeches on his vision for the future of the party."

Will it be third time lucky for 65 year-old Mr Clarke? His decision to try one last time, after months of agonising, will galvanise the One Nation camp in the party, but the number of people on the left is dwindling as the centre right asserts its dominance in Tory thinking.

Much may depend on the Tory supporting media. Could Rupert Murdoch's titles – anti EU to the last column centimetre – line up behind Clarke at the next election? It's hard to believe, but there again, it's unlikely that Murdoch would want to see Gordon Brown have an extended tenure in Downing Street.

There is a growing belief among commentators that Clarke would stop a drift of Tory voters to the Liberal Democrats while David Davis would drive tens of thousands into the arms of Charles Kennedy.

If Ken Clarke is to succeed, I suspect he will have to reach some sort of compromise with David Cameron, who counts among his supporters many of the younger, forward-thinking generation of Conservative MPs.

Without a Clarke-Cameron alliance, it is difficult to see David Davis being stopped. And of the top contenders for the job, he's the one Labour and the Lib Dems fear the least.

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