Clarke poised to plunge into Tory leadership pool

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Indy Politics

Ken Clarke was limbering up last night to run for the Conservative leadership contest, in spite of his Sumo-like profile and delayed start, according to his closest friends.

Some of his most loyal allies, who despaired at his decision to go to Vietnam last week, were convinced after weekend consultations that the former chancellor will announce this week that he is going for the leadership.

"All the body language says he is going to go for it, but the actual words never passed his lips," said one Clarke supporter.

He does not believe the week's delay in Vietnam, which allowed Michael Ancram to steal a march, has damaged his own core vote. His friends are convinced that he is such a big figure, he will draw support from Mr Ancram once he enters.

"The thing about Ken is that when he jumps in the pond, you know the waves will hit the bank," said one of his allies.

The Clarke camp, which include Michael Mates, the former campaign manager for Michael Heseltine, said the real battle is for second place behind Michael Portillo, who is virtually assured of first place in the ballot of MPs.

Mr Clarke's blokish image is seen by his supporters as the secret weapon that could help the Tories regain popularity with ordinary voters while Mr Ancram's Tory Toff image would prove damaging. "Ancram is a nice guy but he just isn't an election winner," said another Clarke backer.

Mr Clark says he can beat Mr Portillo in the final ballot of members in the country. In spite of his outspoken support for the euro, Mr Clarke is seen by many Tory members as the only candidate who can frighten Tony Blair.

The Portillo camp is expected to intensify its efforts to win over the blue-rinse set in the Tory associations who have their doubts about Mr Portillo's efforts to reinvent himself and the Tory Party.

Mr Portillo's supporters are also appealing over the head of Charles Moore, the editor of The Daily Telegraph, to its proprietor, Conrad Black.

At a private party for Mr Portillo at the publisher's Kensington home, Mr Black said: "It's got to be Portillo."