Clarke joins crowded field in Tory leadership battle

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The former Tory Chancellor Kenneth Clarke said that, at the age of 64, he still has the thirst to become the next Conservative Party leader and threw his large brown fedora into the ring.

The former Tory Chancellor Kenneth Clarke said that, at the age of 64, he still has the thirst to become the next Conservative Party leader and threw his large brown fedora into the ring.

However, as the cigar-smoking political heavyweight declared his interest in running for the leadership, his main rival David Davis snatched two of his supporters.

Mr Clarke brushed aside the defection of support by Damian Green and Ian Taylor, a former minister, and in a typically ebullient performance made it clear he was prepared to have a third crack at winning the Tory Party leadership.

In an interview on ITV's Jonathan Dimbleby programme, Mr Clarke rejected the suggestion by Michael Howard, who will step down at the end of the year, that he is too old.

"I don't think at my age you could start ruling people out in politics," he said. "When I'm 78, I shall probably be canvassing for Pope but so long as I'm fit eager and continue to enjoy politics as much as I do, I can assure you I'm certainly not re-elected to retire and I shall certainly start trying to push my influence in politics as far as I possibly can."

He confirmed he still had the ambition to become Prime Minister, saying: "It is the last big job in politics, and I have a very enjoyable life out of office thanks to the public but if I could go back to the red boxes, the crisis, the excitement of decisions - yes I would for the one big office that matters in politics."

The field is now more crowded than ever, with David Willetts, David Cameron, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Alan Duncan, Andrew Lansley and Mr Clarke vying for the centre-left votes. Mr Davis and Liam Fox, the shadow foreign secretary, are the centre-right candidates but Mr Davis is the firm favourite, showing he can gain support across the party.

Mr Green, a natural Clarke supporter, who could swing more votes from the left of the party, announced he was backing Mr Davis for the leadership. There were rumours he had been promised the chairmanship of the Tory Party, but he denied being offered any job by Mr Davis.

Mr Taylor, a close ally of Mr Clarke, also said at the weekend that Mr Davis "could be the man for me". Mr Taylor has privately told friends he did not believe Mr Clarke was likely to win.

Mr Clarke's intervention came after his allies warned him that unless he publicly stated his readiness to run for the leadership, he would lose momentum.

"We told Ken that if he didn't come out in public and say he is running, people will have make commitments to other candidates," said one Tory MP .

John Bercow, Conservative MP for Buckingham, who voted for Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Portillo for the leadership, told The Sunday Programme on GMTV that he would be backing Mr Clarke in the leadership battle.

"I'm a very strong supporter of Ken Clarke in what I hope will be a successful bid this time round," he said. "I think he's the most popular Conservative in the country."

Mr Clarke said he had stood twice for the leadership but had not challenged Mr Howard because he thought he would lose. "I have a habit of running for leadership which means I think my friends know perfectly well I'd like to be Prime Minister.

"Last time I didn't run because it was quite clear to me that I couldn't win. That was the only reason I didn't stand last time. I've got another couple of months in which it will become as clear to me as everybody else whether this time I have a chance of winning."

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