A Chelsea pensioner and the gentle siege of Saltwood Castle

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The portcullis at the gateway to his country seat may have kept journalists at bay yesterday, but no wooden grating is sufficiently secure to prevent Alan Clark returning to his city seat.

For the newly appointed Kensington & Chelsea candidate for the Tories will soon be dividing his time once again between Saltwood Castle and the House of Commons, where many feel he still belongs. The maverick minister and self-confessed philanderer has at last made amends for what he described as a "colossal mistake" in giving up his Plymouth seat in 1992.

As his long-suffering wife, Jane, accepted bouquets and hand-delivered milk from assembled reporters at the Clarks' historic pad in Kent (all part of the service), Mr Clark breathed a sigh of relief and enjoyed two hours of fresh air. He returned mid-morning in buoyant mood after a hike around his estate. He was greeted with tributes - from the Prime Minister down.

John Major made no secret of his enthusiasm at the prospect of Mr Clark's return to Parliament. "I think Alan Clark is an original and everyone in the House of Commons knows he's an original," he said. "He'll bring a dash of colour. There's a very shrewd, clever, intelligent politician returning to the Commons and of course I welcome that." Asked if there would be a place for Mr Clark in his Cabinet after the election, the Prime Minister laughed and replied: "I'm not going to carry out my next government reshuffle now, but I'm delighted you acknowledge there's going to be one after the election."

Mr Clark said he would fight the election on the basis of the Conservative manifesto. He went on: "My past is an open book. Everyone knows about it, the Conservative Association knew about it, and they still wanted me. Now it is up to the electorate to decide whether they want me as their MP."

And if they do, his task at Westminster will be to help restore Tory unity. "We've got to keep the Conservative party together," he said. "We don't want the millennium to arrive with the party in difficulties."

But there were words of warning from Sir Nicholas Scott, Mr Clark's predecessor in Kensington & Chelsea who was dumped by the constituency after being found reportedly drunk on a pavement during last year's party conference.

Sir Nicholas said Mr Clark should prepare for life in opposition. "Although manifestly everybody is working exceptionally hard to make sure we do win the election ... the odds might indicate that we might not."