The former cabinet minister John Patten last night warned "daft and short-sighted" Tory MPs that they risked "signing their own political death warrants" by criticising Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor.
Mr Patten made a rare intervention into the thick of internal Tory politics to give unequivocal backing for the Chancellor against what his allies see as a "whispering campaign" among the right-wing, Euro-sceptic faction.
Speaking at the Carlton Club, Mr Patten hinted strongly that he believed Mr Clarke's opponents were already manoeuvring on the succession to John Major in the event of an election defeat.
"You might at least recognise if you are certain that you will be around to argue about the future direction of Toryism after the next election, that the best background against which to do this is a Tory victory."
The former Education Secretary added that if the party stopped living for political power "there would only be a political corpse to fight over".
Suggestions by Mr Clarke's opponents - hotly denied by Downing Street and the Treasury - that he has become increasingly isolated in Cabinet, have been fuelled by an apparent difference of emphasis between himself and Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary over monetary union.
While Mr Clarke said as recently as the Madrid summit in December that he believed there was a 60-40 chance of monetary union going ahead, Mr Rifkind has been quick to draw attention to the strains threatening EMU within both Germany and France, and to suggest there is a growing gulf between economic realities and the planned 1999 timetable.
Mr Patten's impassioned defence of Mr Clarke, however, virtually ignored the European issue, and concentrated on his economic achievements - comparing him to Ludwig Erhard, the German chancellor credited with being the architect of the post-war "economic miracle".
Mr Patten said he believed Mr Clarke would be the architect "if given the chance" of a period of "unparalleled steady growth into the next millennium for the UK.
He added that with the "best run of low inflation for half a century", the lowest income tax rate for 50 years, the lowest mortgage costs for 30 years, falling unemployment and record-breaking exports, Mr Clarke, and his deputy William Waldegrave, had controlled public spending, kept down inflation and "left room for investment and consumer demand".
He added: "Only the most kamikaze Tory politician should overlook the fact that the Chancellor is not just delivering some ephemeral pre-election one-year wonder, but laying much more substantial foundations for decades ahead."
Earlier, in a BBC Today interview, Mr Clarke vigorously denied a suggestion attributed to an anonymous Cabinet colleague that he had accepted he was coming to the end of his government career. "Anyone who thinks that I think this is my last job is seriously mistaken," the Chancellor insisted.Reuse content