Tory backbenchers begin to put their faith in the Clarke option

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The Independent Online
YOUR PARTY'S poll ratings have flatlined and you've got a party leader who's as popular as a Monsanto salesman at a Greenpeace rally. So, as a Tory MP in dire need of an electoral saviour, who you gonna call?

Step forward the soft shoe shuffler himself, Britain's number one Notts County fan and darling of Cuban cigar factory workers, the Right Honourable Kenneth Clarke.

That was the plea this week from more than a handful of Conservative backbenchers who are restless about William Hague's failure to dent the Government's popularity.

Even right-wing Eurosceptics are now heard in Commons bars and backrooms proclaiming the Clarke option. "We might as well face it sooner rather than later. Hague's going to lose us the next election," one said. "At least with Ken, we'd have a big hitter who was popular with the punters."

This recent rash of speculation was prompted last Sunday by none other than Tony Blair, who appealed to the former Chancellor to wrest back control of the Tories from its rabid right. As Valentines go, it was neither finesse nor publicly welcome to the Clarke camp, but the Prime Minister's intervention prompted MPs to reassert that most Tory of instincts, self- preservation.

However, "that podgy life insurance risk", as Mr Clarke is memorably described in Alan Clark's Diaries, has skilfully spent the past few days rising above the Westminster gossip, letting the rumour mill do its work. On the face of it, Mr Clarke has behaved of late like the very model of a modern Tory backbencher. Ever loyal on the record, he praised Mr Hague's "compassionate Conservatism" speeches in the United States and popped up during a Commons debate to attack Labour's reforms of the House of Lords.

Significantly, Mr Clarke has not ruled out leading the Tories and his allies point out that under the new one-member, one-vote leadership rules, his popularity with the grass roots could clinch him the top job. They point out that during the last Tory leadership contest, he came top of the ballot on the first round of voting by MPs and he won the overwhelming backing of constituency chairmen up and down the country.

Musings about a Clarke leadership were further highlighted in a poll that showed a breakaway pro-Europe Tory party would split the vote in the European elections in June. With Clarke as its leader, it would command 19 per cent, compared with 20 per cent for a Hague-led official party.

With rebel Tory MEPs, John Stevens and Brendan Donnelly due this week to attempt to register their new party, the pressure will be on Mr Clarke to publicly distance himself from such claims. Privately, he makes clear he sympathises with those frustrated by Mr Hague's hardline stance on the euro, but he has no intention of leaving to form another party.

When Mr Clarke last ran against William Hague, his opponents were heard repeating their slogan: "It's easy as ABC: Anybody But Clarke." As Mr Hague's personal ratings nosedive, it may be now that the crumpled, but canny, backbencher may follow his trademark Hush Puppies and come back in fashion.