Mr Clarke's outspoken pledge of loyalty before Mr Major's crucial closing speech today coincided with the non-speaking and delicately orchestrated appearance of Baroness Thatcher at the party's Blackpool conference which gave the Prime Minister the louder and more convincing ovation.
Mr Clarke's success in shifting the centre of gravity back to the leadership was strongly reinforced last night when Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, took issue with the Thatcherite right which was insisting on 'permanent cultural revolution' in the public services.
In an unequivocal restatement of traditional one-nation Toryism, Mr Hurd said while the party should 'build on the achievements' of the Thatcher years, the problems of the 1990s could not be tackled with 'the language and ideas of the 1980s'.
Mr Hurd told a Tory Reform Group dinner that teachers, nurses, servicemen, doctors, postmasters, police officers, could not be treated as 'relics of a past age whom we should periodically despatch to the rice fields for thought, reform and indoctrination'.
Mr Clarke, widely canvassed as Mr Major's most serious potential successor, said that the Prime Minister had won the last election 'almost single handed' and that 'any enemy of John Major is an enemy of the Conservative Party'.
His speech came amid signs that he is considering imposing the planned two-stage 17.5 per cent value-added tax on fuel in one stage next April, instead of limiting next year's rise to 8 per cent.
In a sober and untheatrical speech, which was given a respectful rather than rapturous reception, Mr Clarke deftly invoked Lady Thatcher's 'courageous' tax-raising 1981 Budget as evidence that 'when the first priority is to balance the books, tight control over public spending is not always enough'.
Mr Clarke said that the agreed pounds 253bn spending ceiling was the 'tightest I can remember in 14 years as a minister' and warned that he would expect the 'full support' of the party for implementing painful cuts when it came to take them through Parliament.
But his indication that he is ready to raise taxes in the Budget cut directly across a clear call from his predecessor, Norman Lamont, at a fringe meeting for a further 2 per cent cut in public expenditure on the 'citadels of the welfare state'.
Conference reports, page 8
Andrew Marr, page 27