'It's like being a Royalist in 1649'

It's daggers drawn as Conservative MPs trade insults, promises and friends in the final stages of the leadership battle
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The Independent Online
Historians may well be able to identify the moment at which Kenneth Clarke missed his last chance to take the leadership of the Conservative Party, and, possibly, to have prevented bloody, internecine strife.

It was early evening in the House of Commons last Tuesday, and Michael Howard, who had come bottom of the poll with 23 votes, sought out Peter Lilley, who had got 24 - three less than John Redwood. Mr Howard told Mr Lilley that, if he wished to fight on, he would back him. But when Mr Lilley declared that he did not think he was a runner, Sir Patrick Cormack, one of his team, pressed Mr Lilley to back Mr Clarke.

A meeting took place soon afterwards but, as one source put it: "Ken was not at his most seductive." He agreed that a Clarke/Lilley alliance would unite the party by covering all the angles on one ticket, but no specific job was mentioned. Mr Clarke then compounded this omission with a tactical error. Stephen Dorrell, whose support he had won the previous week, was brought in on the meeting. Mr Dorrell's presence served as a reminder that Mr Clarke must have other promises to keep.

When he left, Mr Lilley's office contacted William Hague, and they met later in the former Welsh Secretary's room. Mr Howard's office did the same. The official version is that jobs were never discussed; one source says: "Things usually aren't done in quite such a crude way." But whatever was said was enough to bring the backing of two right-wing heavyweights to Mr Hague, and Mr Lilley is confidently expected to be Mr Hague's shadow chancellor, while Mr Howard must have a fine chance of acting as shadow foreign secretary.

At 8.30pm Mr Hague walked from Westminster Hall into the street and TV lights to publicly acknowledge the backing of the men who made him clear favourite in the leadership race.

Moments earlier Mr Clarke was to be seen eating at the Chief Whip's table in the corner of the Members' dining-room when the agitated figure of David Curry rushed in with the news that Messrs Lilley and Howard were backing Hague. It was bad news but it did not seem to put Mr Clarke off his dinner.

THE dismal truth is that the week which had promised much for Mr Clarke now looks like the prelude to his return to the backbenches. On Monday he won the overwhelming backing of the party's constituencies - 279 of them, although Mr Hague did ominously well with 178. These votes would not be counted in the leadership election proper but the Clarke camp hoped that momentum was on their side.

Most of the 164 MPs taking part in the secret ballot in Committee Room 14 at Westminster had voted by lunchtime. The result, soon after five o'clock, declared the former chancellor was only eight ahead of Mr Hague, polling 49 - significantly fewer than the 60 votes he hoped for. Too many of his natural backers simply took the view that he could not win.

This point was made at a dinner the following night, in dining-room D by the terrace of the House of Commons. The gathering was of the One Nation group, supposedly like-minded middle-of-the-road Conservative MPs, and boasted such luminaries as Mr Clarke, Michael Heseltine and Sir Norman Fowler. This was Mr Clarke's natural constituency, but one diner recalled: "I went around the table and calculated that less than half of them had actually voted for Ken Clarke".

On the right the crisis was even more dramatic when, against all expectations, Mr Redwood finished ahead of Mr Lilley and Mr Howard.

Both expected to beat Mr Redwood, and had agreed that, whoever came first would go forward as the candidate of the right. Mr Redwood had not been factored into this equation, partly because his colleagues weren't sure whether he would back out even if he did come last.

Once the result was known, Mr Redwood made overtures by phone from his base in Buckingham Gate. First call was to Mr Howard to whom, according to one source, he offered the job of Shadow Chancellor (though this is disputed by the Redwoodites). The conversation ended without conclusion. His next call, to Mr Lilley, also ended without any sign of an endorsement. Far from becoming the standard bearer of the right, Mr Redwood was being isolated.

This was the trigger for an outburst of bitterness and division that now grips the party, in opposition for the first time in 18 years. Hearing of the Lilley/Howard desertion, one Redwood-supporter reacted furiously: "These are the last dying embers of the Major cabinet. Those guys stuck together and reinforced their mutual mediocrity and absurd esteem for each other as the shadows gathered, they stuck together up to 1 May, they are still sticking together."

THE fracture of the right leaves Mr Hague in a commanding position, although not invulnerable. One Clarke supporter argued: "William has nothing superior to Blair in terms of presentation or robustness. If he starts to fail, the party will be pretty unforgiving. He could be destroyed." Critics call him "Hague the Vague", although there was nothing vague about his endorsement of gay marriages in last week's Independent on Sunday which some opponents have seized upon with alacrity.

"There is a lot of muck coming from Redwood's people," complained a Hague aide. "They are stirring it, stirring it, stirring it. Let them. It only demeans them and makes them look desperate. We are completely relaxed about the whole thing."

The "muck" relates to dark rumours that Hague - a 36-year-old batchelor - is gay. His appearance yesterday at Kipling Hall in his Richmond constituency with his fiancee Ffion undermines this gossip, and Hague had earlier told the Daily Telegraph: "Well, I'm not. My friends know things like this are ridiculous. If you are a politician, some people will always want to do you down. I don't lose a moments sleep over things like that. People have said I've been secretly married, had children I've hidden, gone to a totally different school from the one I actually went to. I would only have to worry if it were true. Water off a duck's back."

His colleagues in the parliamentary party have other concerns. When Ann Widdecombe, the formidable former prisons minister, went for a tete-a- tete with Mr Hague last Wednesday evening she was immensely discreet - not because she wanted to hide what she was doing. On the contrary. Her concern was that she might come face-to-face with Mr Hague's next- door neighbour in the Commons - Michael Howard, the man whose leadership chances she had helped to sabotage.

Other MPs wanted to trade votes for jobs. The pitch, apparently, goes like this: "My talents have always been overlooked in this party. But now there are fewer of us I feel there could be something for me in opposition ..."

IT WOULD be rash to write off Kenneth Clarke completely, but his supporters do not expect to pick up more than 10 more votes in the next round on Tuesday. Despite her visit to Mr Hague, Ms Widdecombe is one. Gillian Shephard may well be another, although, according to one source, she is demanding assurances of a substantial Shadow Cabinet job. Some believe that the strong opportunism of MPs, the desire to be on the side of the winner, could actually cost Mr Clarke some of his original core of voters leaving him little more than a handful of votes up.

Mr Redwood is expected to add perhaps 20 voters to his tally of 27 in the first ballot, putting him close to the other two. If Mr Hague picked up the rest it could put him ahead of Mr Clarke. Defeat by a convincing margin might persuade the ex-chancellor to concede. A third ballot on Thursday would see Hague in a strong position to pick up the remainder of Mr Redwood's supporters - although such is the bitterness on the right that some of them might prefer to back Mr Clarke rather than the man they see as an empty vessel or "John Major by other means".

But whoever comes through, their task of uniting the party will be Herculean. If Mr Hague wins he will also have difficulty in keeping Mr Clarke in his shadow team. Mr Hague's decision to rule out membership of a single currency in the lifetime of this or the next parliament would make it difficult for Mr Clarke to accept either Foreign Office or Treasury portfolios - even if they were offered.

Worst still, there is little sign of compromise on the right. One Hague- backer said: "The fact that Redwood scored well in the first round indicates that there are 27 completely unreconstructed Eurosceptics in the party with an agenda which ultimately leads to withdrawal from Europe."

With just 164 MPs, the Conservative parliamentary party may be smaller than it was, yet it remains as fractured as ever, with enmities at least as deep-rooted. As a Redwood-backer puts it: "In these desperate dark days in the Tory party, it is like being a Royalist in 1649 when the civil war was raging. Only when one side has won will it stop, and peace prevail."