Conservatives 'could become third party'

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Indy Politics

The Tories risk becoming Britain's third party behind the Liberal Democrats unless their new leader widened their appeal to a "much wider group of people", Francis Maude, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said yesterday.

His grim forecast of the challenges ahead for Kenneth Clarke or Iain Duncan Smith came as the rival candidates' stance on Europe continued to dominate the leadership contest.

Mr Maude, the campaign manager for the defeated Michael Portillo, urged them to take on his agenda of "inclusiveness" and modernisation. "It is a battle for the survival of the party," he told BBC Radio 4. "If we do not change ourselves and make ourselves appealing to a much wider group of people, rather than arguing about things which are of interest primarily to ourselves, we will fail and we will run the risk after the next election of becoming the third party."

With voting forms being sent out today to more than 300,000 party members and most expected to cast their ballot within days, both surviving candidates will today unveil detailed plans for their leadership. But their starkly different views on the Europe Union overshadowed the contest yesterday, with Mr Clarke renewing his charge that his rival secretly wanted Britain to end European membership.

Interviewed on BBC1's Breakfast with Frost, the former chancellor challenged his opponent. "If he has now modified his views and is prepared to say that if he became leader we would never leave the EU, I would be very, very encouraged." A spokesman for Mr Duncan Smith retorted: "Categorically, Iain has never, ever contemplated Britain leaving the European Union. This is complete rubbish."

The former Conservative chairman, Michael Ancram, joined the attack, claiming a Clarke victory could tear apart the Tories. He said: "I'm looking for someone who can reunite the party with exciting, new radical ideas and I think that is Iain Duncan Smith."

Mr Clarke attempted to shrug off his "Euro-fanatic" tag last night by releasing a list of 26 prominent Tory Eurosceptics, including Ann Widdecombe, Douglas Hogg and Andrew Mackay, who support his candidacy.

He also won the surprise backing of Andrew Lansley, the shadow Cabinet Office minister and an architect of the Tories' general election strategy.

The Duncan Smith team was buoyed, however, by gaining the endorsement of the former leader William Hague.