Europe resurfaced as the major fault line through the Tory leadership contest last night after Kenneth Clarke admitted he would abstain from an important parliamentary vote on the issue.
Mr Clarke stunned critics by announcing that one of his first acts as Conservative leader would be to refuse to turn up to the House of Commons for the vote on the Nice Treaty scheduled for October.
In a defiant restatement of his pro-Europe views, the former chancellor also warned that his most right-wing opponents would be welcome to quit the party if he won.
Mr Clarke made clear his combative stance as both candidates in the leadership race published personal manifestos that were posted out with ballot papers for the party's 300,000 members yesterday.
He said he disagreed with his party's official policy of opposing the Nice Treaty – the first item of business when Parliament returns – and would absent himself as a result.
Mr Clarke's admission was seized upon by his rival, Iain Duncan Smith, who said it was his intention to "lead from the front" and vigorously oppose the treaty.
Mr Clarke said he would leave it to the party's junior foreign affairs spokesman Richard Spring to carry on the previous policy of opposition to the treaty, while Labour's massive majority would ensure that it was certain to pass anyway.
"It may well be my diary will make it difficult for me to be there. The Nice Treaty will then be history. We might as well put it in the bag," he told a Westminster news conference.
Mr Duncan Smith contrasted Mr Clarke's views on Nice with an enthusiastic opposition to the treaty, while his aides claimed Mr Clarke would be an "Awol leader".
Mr Duncan Smith said: "My view is clear – when the Nice vote comes, if I am leader, I will lead from the front. We will oppose the Nice Treaty as we have been doing."
The prospect of a leader of the opposition abstaining from such an important vote, which would be unprecedented in modern times, was also attacked by David Maclean, the MP for Penrith and the Borders who is a strong Duncan Smith supporter.
"This will blow up in our faces on the very first day back. As most of the Tory party marches through the "no" lobby, our newly-elected leader, who we are looking to for inspired leadership, would be abstaining. It's an absurd position," Mr Maclean said.
"Every single week, Tony Blair will engineer a European question just to watch us writhe in agony. Questions on Europe won't wait four years for a referendum," he added.
The issue of Europe was further underscored in the two candidates' manifestos, with Mr Duncan Smith claiming only he could unite the party, but Mr Clarke warned of the dangers of "extremism" and of the becoming "obsessed" with issues which did not matter to ordinary voters.
Mr Clarke also dismissed threats that some right-wing supporters of Mr Duncan Smith could leave the party if their candidate failed to win.
"I think the Conservative Party has had quite enough of people throwing their toys out of their prams. Anybody from either wing of the party who says they are going to leave if they don't like the leader is free to go because that particularly instinct is the kind of thing that has been undermining the party for the past 10 years," he said.
"Anybody who is so foolish as to say that 'if I don't get the leader I want, I am no longer going to help the Conservative Party,' is not the kind of Conservative we would want."
Mr Clarke also sought to reach out to supporters of his defeated leadership rival Michael Portillo.
Describing himself as a "social liberal", Mr Clarke said: "I deplore racialism, I deplore bigotry of any kind, including homophobia."
However he also made clear that he did not intend to be drawn into the kind of damaging controversies that undermined Mr Portillo's leadership bid, insisting that he was not in favour of gay marriages or legalising soft drugs.Reuse content