Kenneth Clarke: 'My claims of winning the next election are overwhelmingly stronger than my rivals'

The Monday Interview: Tory leadership contender

But the former chancellor will be too busy for the ride along the Prom to Fleetwood for a box of kippers. He has the Independent debate tonight and a speech on the economy tomorrow.

Earlier, sitting in his office overlooking the Thames, Mr Clarke reflected on the conference ahead. He was ambling pleasantly around the key subjects for the leadership campaign - his stand against the Iraq war, the "incomprehensible" proposed offence of glorifying terrorism, and his absolute confidence he can win through to the final round against David Davis - when he fell into the elephant trap of the euro.

In August, Mr Clarke appeared to clear the ground for his campaign by renouncing the euro. He said he did not think Britain could join the euro with "complete security and confidence" for 10 years. I asked him whether he had given up on the enterprise forever.

He replied: "I just said it's not on the agenda."

I pressed him further: "It's not on the agenda, but have you given it up forever?"

He replied: "I'm not getting into economic forecasts 10 years out. What I said on the euro was in a very obscure article in a specialist journal to an interview which I gave in July. It has been spun quite remarkably - both by my friends and my enemies."

Far from it being part of a carefully laid plan to make himself electable while his rivals were sunning themselves on the beaches, he insisted it was "not a Machiavellian plot to smuggle out any very significant new ideas". He said: "I did say that the eurozone has been disappointing in some respects, mainly because the politicians have not responded to the need for economic reform once they got into head-to-head competition in a single market. I then went on to attack the Italian government fairly vigorously as an example. On Britain - what I said in my opinion does not seem very sensational - I really don't foresee Britain, or Sweden for that matter, contemplating joining the single currency for at least 10 years, and I don't know anyone who disagrees with me."

I could see Mr Clarke's friends holding their heads in their hands. If only he would renounce the devil, he could win. I told him that I thought the Tory die-hard Eurosceptics were like the Labour unilateralists in the 1980s. They would rather remain unelectable than spoil the purity of their policy. He laughed, and accepted there was a similarity.

As if to remind Mr Clarke how fanatical they can be, the former Tory Treasurer Lord Kalms, a Davis supporter, popped up last week on the BBC's Today programme to warn that if Mr Clarke was elected, he would no longer support the party because Mr Clarke's views on the euro were unacceptable.

He said: "If I find in the course of this leadership campaign that I am suddenly spending all my time talking with Conservative activists about the single currency I'll know they are not ready to win an election."

I reminded him that the last time he ran for the leadership he spent the whole time talking about the euro and was beaten by Iain Duncan Smith. "I haven't made a speech on the euro in the UK for about two years," he said. "All the questions were from my enemies. Iain Duncan Smith went round prompting them. Look, I do know Conservative constituency associations where there are no questions about the euro. I haven't yet met a newspaper interviewer who doesn't ask about the euro. You want the usual cliché about how Ken Clarke will only talk about the euro. You are the one going on about the euro, not me. Ask my friends - I haven't volunteered a view about the euro for years in this country."

He once said the Tory grassroots were too right wing to elect him. He is confident that they have changed. "Because the Conservative Party has lost three elections on the trot, it must have an overwhelming desire to win the next one," he said.

"I think my chances of winning are better than they have been before. I think my claims of having a chance of winning the next election are overwhelmingly stronger than my rivals."

He is not impressed by the attempts of his rivals to try to occupy the centre ground upon which he sits like an immovable object. He laughed out loud at the idea that David Cameron, the cherub-faced Old Etonian, is a One Nation candidate like himself. "He was Michael Howard's right-hand man all the way through to the last election. Before that he was a Portillista. I know that they have all moved; Michael Portillo more spectacularly than most. I am not criticising David Cameron. I am fond of him; he is a bright guy but I never thought of him as being particularly on the left of the party. Three of the candidates, unlike Malcolm Rifkind and myself, were involved in the last election campaign and the party's presentation of itself. If they have all become centrists and middle-way politicians, I am very glad of it." But it was clear he doubted it. "All the candidates say they want to occupy the centre ground. I think Malcolm Rifkind has been as consistent as me in always being a One Nation Conservative. I have never previously looked on any one of the other three [Mr Davis, Mr Cameron and Liam Fox] as being a centre-ground politician."

Mr Clarke is confident that the 300,000 party members who will make the final choice in a ballot on 6 December are thirsting for victory, and will see him as the only candidate who can deliver it. He is ahead in the opinion polls, and is irritated at suggestions that was due to him being more famous than the others.

"In recent years, most well-known Conservative politicians are quite unpopular with the public. It's not just the recognition factor. People like David Davis and David Cameron have been campaigning for two or three months now. There was at least one poll which showed people were less likely to vote Conservative if either of them was leader, so this can't just be recognition factor," said Mr Clarke.

At 65, his opponents have suggested slyly he is too old. His supporters insist he is remarkably up for the fight, and still capable of beating Gordon Brown or Tony Blair at the despatch box. Indeed, there are some Labour MPs who would give their eye-teeth for a leader with his views on Iraq.

"I am not in favour of setting a timetable for withdrawal [of British troops from Iraq]. I think we should set realistic political objectives, some progress on rebuilding the country, as the basis on which we leave. As things deteriorate you do all the time have to ask yourself whether the downside of being an occupying army is not outweighing the upside of what you are trying to achieve," he said. He is worried that Mr Blair is ceding the decision on the timing of the withdrawal to the Bush administration. "The Americans are still launching big military offensives in the belief they can defeat the insurgency that way. Meanwhile our own Government will say nothing except that our people will stay there as long as the Iraqi people want them to stay, not least because I don't think our people will stay there once the Americans leave. I think it is leaving everything to an American initiative."

He also makes a connection between Iraq and the terrorist bombings in London. "The whole experience of the Iraqi occupation has raised the spectre of us somehow being at odds with the Muslim world and that is an ideal breeding ground for terrorism among the vulnerable young with an unbalanced sense of grievance," he said.

"It is quite inadequate to respond to a bomb in London with yet more anti-terrorism legislation. The Government are totally over-selling what is achieved by expelling a few firebrand preachers. I don't mind seeing the wild ones expelled providing it's done in a legal way, but the London bombings have nothing to do with any defects in our law."

This contest will prove a test of how far the Tory party has matured, but also how far Mr Clarke is prepared to sidestep the traps laid for him by the Eurosceptics.

The CV

* BORN: 2 July 1940

* FAMILY: Married with one son and one daughter

* EDUCATION: Nottingham High School; Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge (President of the Union)

* CAREER: 1963, called to the Bar; 1970, MP for Rushcliffe; 1972, assistant whip; 1979, Transport minister; 1982, Health minister; 1985, Paymaster General; 1987, Trade minister; 1988, Health Secretary; 1990, Education Secretary; 1992, Home Secretary; 1993, Chancellor; 1997, Deputy chair, Alliance UniChem; director, Foreign & Colonial Investment Trust; 1998, Deputy chair, BAT; director, Independent News & Media

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