Senior officials disowned a commitment from Mr Clark that a Blair administration would act "within a month" of taking office to repeal the military's ban on openly gay men.
But they confirmed Labour's long-standing policy of regarding rules targeted against homosexuals as an infringement of civil liberties, and promised to address discrimination in the forces in consultation with service chiefs if the party comes to power.
Homosexuality is officially considered "incompatible with military life", and gay groups say that between 50 and 70 homosexuals are dismissed from the services every year.
Mr Clark said yesterday: "It is important in the modern world that military law is as near as possible in accord with civilian law."
With two test cases due before the European Court of Human Rights, the pressure for change was becoming irresistible. Mr Clark added: "There are difficulties - nobody is denying this - and one of the main difficulties is you have to take people with you. We have not spoken to defence chiefs because we are not allowed to speak to defence chiefs as a matter of policy."
Defence Secretary Malcolm Rifkind denounced Mr Clark's comments as "foolish". He said. "It is symptomatic of their priorities that the only firm policy on defence that Labour has announced is on homosexuality."
Mr Clark's comments prompted a furious reaction from influential figures in the military. Lord Lewin, Admiral of the Fleet and retired Chief of Defence Staff, said yesterday on BBC radio: "There are many laws which do not affect the internal organisation of the armed services, and if you join the armed services you surrender a certain amount of your civil liberty - you have to accept discipline."
Peter Tatchell, of the gay group OutRage!, claimed that some of Britain's most famous military figures - including Gordon of Khartoum, Kitchener, Haig, Field Marshall Montgomery and Admiral Mountbatten - had been homosexual. He said they discussed "outing" top-level military commanders.Reuse content