In an interview with the Independent the Chancellor coupled an explicit declaration that the party should unite behind its leader with a characteristic, candid admission: 'I would like to be a contender for the leadership, but at a time of John Major's choosing, not mine.'
In the wake of renewed of leadership speculation after the damning evidence to the Scott inquiry of Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, Mr Clarke said: 'I think I have a reasonable desire to keep myself a contender, but I completely understand that many other people have the same idea. That situation is not unique to politics. I don't think any of them are looking to hasten the day. We have a leader who once told us he will take us by surprise when he does resign. I endorse his right to take us by surprise when he decides to go, which I think will be a long way away.'
It was 'only in the present fevered atmosphere' that Mr Heseltine's robust self-defence at the inquiry could have been seen as a leadership bid. 'I expected him to give a vigorous account of himself. I strongly believe I did the same.'
Mr Clarke's remarks came after the Prime Minister told the BBC radio Jimmy Young Show he had no intention of 'running away' from any challenge or of standing down before the next election. Mr Major said there had been speculation last year about a leadership challenge, which did not materialise, and added: 'It isn't real. I was elected at the last election with the largest vote any party or any party leader has ever had and I was elected to remain Prime Minister of this country at least until the next election and beyond it if I win the next election. I have never run away from a challenge in my life, and I am surely not doing it now.'
Mr Clarke predicted the party would not 'feed' leadership speculation. It was essential to unite behind the leader if it was to recover in the polls.
However, the Chancellor in effect dismissed remarks by one of his potential rivals, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, who said in a television interview on Sunday that he did not believe Mr Major, aged 50, would give way to an older man when the time came for him to depart. 'I am against ageism,' joked Mr Clarke, 53.
Mr Clarke's remarks - during a wide-ranging interview in which he warned he would not start cutting taxes until the economic recovery was fully in place - came as Douglas Hurd made a speech in Brussels designed to bridge party divisions on Europe before the crucial European elections.
Mr Clarke backed Mr Hurd, who, in a speech also echoed by Mr Major, urged Europe to abandon rhetoric and concentrate on making the EU work better. Mr Clarke dismissed suggestions that Mr Hurd, Mr Heseltine or himself had been forced to take a more sceptical line to unite the party. He insisted: 'I remain as committed as ever to the prospect of a European Union. I know no sensible politician who thinks that it would be in the interest of the United Kingdom to leave that European Union or be thrown out of it.'
But he added: 'Good politicians learn from experience and experience should tell us that we shouldn't run ahead of public opinion, and I think British public opinion wants us to be clearer about what we are for.' That was a 'free market, open trading' Europe. The Government was against 'overcentralisation and overregulation.'
The odds against Mr Heseltine as next Tory leader fell to 3-1. The bookmaker William Hill make him second favourite behind Mr Clarke, at evens.Reuse content