Clarke tells Tories he still wants to be Prime Minister

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Indy Politics

Kenneth Clarke broke his silence on the Tory leadership contest yesterday by declaring that he still wished to head the party and, ultimately, become Prime Minister.

In his boldest statement since the Conservatives' general election defeat, the former chancellor delighted his supporters by making clear he harboured ambitions for the top post. However, he also indicated that he would not decide on whether to stand for another 10 days so that he could take "soundings" from colleagues.

"I would like to be leader of the Conservative Party and I have not given up my ambition yet to one day be Prime Minister," Mr Clarke told ITN.

"I have to decide whether a parliamentary party that has just fought a frenetic Eurosceptic campaign, and been defeated, is really capable of being led by a pro-European."

His remarks came as Michael Portillo, the only declared candidate in the race, set up his campaign office in the Westminster home of a wealthy City backer. In an attempt to prove its breadth of support, the Portillo campaign also unveiled a raft of new backers, including Damien Green ­ one of the few one-nation Conservatives in Mr Hague's team ­ and Peter Lilley, the right-wing former deputy party leader.

The Portillo camp, which claims an impressive 11 out of 18 eligible shadow cabinet members to date, was understood to be continuing its discussions with Mr Clarke to gain his support.

But Ian Taylor, MP for Esher and Walton ­ and one of Mr Clarke's strongest supporters ­ indicated that the former minister would not be bought off by the offer of post in a Portillo-led shadow cabinet.

Mr Taylor said. "I am not putting [Mr Clarke] forward because he is pro-European. That happens to be an attribute, but I recognise that it could be a problem for the Tory party. I am putting him forward because he is head and shoulders above other people."

Some MPs, particularly the new intake, have complained that the Portillo camp has been too heavy-handed in demanding support. But Mr Taylor said Mr Clarke would not adopt such tactics if he decided to run. He said: "I would like him to lead, but I am not going to head count. Support is either instinctive or not. Ken is not going to win by grubbing for every backbench colleague."

Mr Clarke's supporters are divided between those who believe he has a real chance of winning and those who want him to extract as many concessions from the Portillo campaign to install some pro-Europeans in his team and allow freedom to speak out on the single currency.

Iain Duncan Smith, the Chingford and Woodford Green MP, who has the backing of Baroness Thatcher, looked increasingly likely to stand as the standard bearer of the right after he said party members were keen to see "competition".

Liam Fox, the shadow Health Secretary, who has been urged to stand by some colleagues, let it be known that he had decided he was too young to run for the leadership. Other members of the Shadow Cabinet, such as Angela Browning, Bernard Jenkin and Andrew Lansley, have decided not to endorse any candidate at this stage.

Mr Portillo's campaign will be managed by the shadow Foreign Secretary, Francis Maude, with Andrew Mackay and Keith Simpson co-heading the parliamentary team. The appointment of Mr Simpson was hailed as significant by the Portillo camp because he was a strong supporter of Mr Clarke during the previous leadership contest.

David Willetts has speech-writing duties, Archie Norman is in charge of logistics, and Mr Green will deal with press relations. Tim Yeo and Nigel Evans will head the campaign to win over grassroots activists.