Kenneth Clarke has admitted he could not have carried out the changes David Cameron has pushed through the Conservative Party without provoking a bloody civil war.
The former cabinet minister, whose third attempt to become Tory leader was scuppered when Mr Cameron emerged as the main modernising candidate, said: "I will concede I would have been wading through blood by now, trying to get the party to where David Cameron has got it. He is a fresh face with no baggage."
In an interview with The Independent, Mr Clarke said: "I always realised that, if I became leader, it would have been a huge test of my political skills to avoid a civil war. I would have had to come to terms with the right more than David has had to. I would probably have had to have more right-wingers in the Shadow Cabinet. I would have had to be more cautious than he has, so he has advantages."
He said Mr Cameron was doing "extremely well" and had given the voters a firm impression of a party with a different set of principles while persuading the party to accept change. "I would have wanted to do the same things," Mr Clarke said.
While he agreed with everything Mr Cameron has done on domestic policy, he parted company with him over Iraq and Europe - notably his plan to pull Tory MEPs out of the European People's Party, the main centre-right grouping.
Mr Clarke fears the move will mean Conservative MEPs joining forces with far-right parties. He declines to rock the boat but hopes the plan will be kicked into the long grass. "I hope that David will steer away from the subject," he said.
His reticence is explained partly by his decision to return to the Tory front line - chairing one of Mr Cameron's policy review groups. His Democracy Task Force will draw up reforms to Tony Blair's "presidential" style of government and transfer some powers to Parliament. Mr Clarke admitted he wanted to tie the Tories' hands so they could not wriggle out of their promises when they came to office. "My aim will be to get them to put themselves in chains and commit themselves to changing the system," he said.
He said Mr Cameron would lead a better government if he restored cabinet government and listened to civil servants.
Asked whether the Tory leader had a presidential style like Mr Blair, he replied that Mr Cameron was still in his "honeymoon" period and hoped that he would eventually "bring on" other figures such as the shadow Chancellor George Osborne.
"A successful opposition needs four or five recognisable figures," he said, urging Mr Cameron not to fight the next election as a "one-man band" as Michael Howard had done last year.
Mr Clarke described as "brilliant" the analysis in last week's report by the independent Power commission that warned Britain's democracy faced meltdown and accused the political parties of "killing politics". He has persuaded Ferdinant Mount, the commission's vice-chairman, to join his task force.
He said a public clamour could one day force politicians to accept proportional representation (PR) but does not think the moment has arrived. "I want strong government with the courage of its own convictions. My objection has always been that a Parliament elected by PR would start a process of horse-trading between the parties for the lowest common denominator of policy options."
Mr Clarke wants the commission to give the parties one more chance. He said: "It asks how to get people more interested in the product. One answer is to improve the product. I believe more people would vote if we improved the quality of the national political process.
"The politicians are as guilty as the media for turning it into a rather lightweight soap opera -the awful Clintonesque techniques, the focus groups, everyone chasing the same voters with the same slogans and clichés."