Clarke gives Howard a clear run at leadership

Kenneth Clarke set the scene for Michael Howard's coronation as Tory leader today by confirming he will not challenge for the party crown.

Mr Clarke was the last heavyweight contender to rule out standing against Mr Howard, who already has the backing of 92 out of 165 Tory MPs.

The pair held talks after the right-wing shadow chancellor formally launched his seemingly unstoppable campaign yesterday.

The Europhile former chancellor wanted reassurances about the direction Mr Howard intends to take the party.

Today Mr Clarke welcomed his pledge to lead from the centre and he ruled out a challenge.

"I said I would have more talks with him but that has been linked now to the idea that I am lingering about thinking of standing," he said.

"I'm afraid my enthusiasm for standing for the leadership of the Conservative Party is no greater than it was when I last denied it on the doorstep about a week ago."

Mr Clarke was defeated by Iain Duncan Smith in the final round of the last leadership contest when ordinary party members voted for the ousted leader by more than three to two.

He said: "I'm not going to give up any other of my bad habits but coming second in Conservative leadership elections is something I don't intend to do.

"So I shall support whoever emerges as leader but I'm not standing myself."

A challenge by a maverick who wants to give party members a choice cannot be ruled out until nominations close next Thursday.

But Mr Clarke's decision means Mr Howard is almost certain to remain unopposed.

Attention in Westminster is already focusing on the changes he will make to the shadow cabinet.

Oliver Letwin is tipped for promotion after apparently acting as an emissary between David Davis and Mr Howard.

Shadow education secretary Damian Green welcomed Mr Clarke's "brave and sensible decision".

"Ken had said all along that he didn't think he was going to run," he told Sky News. "And what we have seen this week is a huge range of support developing for Michael Howard from all wings of the party.

"Clearly there is an enormous feeling that we need to get together, to put the divisions of the past behind us and to get on with our job of exposing the Government and explaining our policies."

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