Howard given clear run to lead from centre after Clarke refuses to stand

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The last serious obstacle to Michael Howard's "coronation" as Tory leader was removed yesterday when Kenneth Clarke announced he would not run for the post.

Mr Clarke ruled himself out after seeking reassurances from Mr Howard that he was serious in wanting to lead the party from the centre and form a broad-based government-in-waiting. The former chancellor's decision marks the end of the political career of one of the Conservatives' most talented and colourful figures of recent times.

"I'm not going to give up any other of my bad habits but coming second in Conservative leadership elections is something I don't intend to do," said the MP for Rushcliffe. "So I shall support whoever emerges ... but I'm not standing myself." Mr Clarke was defeated by Iain Duncan Smith in the 2001 leadership contest when members voted for the now-ousted leader by more than three to two.

His announcement, with a similar pledge by John Redwood, clears the way for Mr Howard being the only candidate when nominations close on Thursday. Mr Clarke, at his meeting with his former cabinet colleague, is understood to have sought guarantees that moderates would be given key posts and freedom to influence policy.

Among the Clarke supporters jockeying for jobs in the new frontbench team will be Caroline Spelman, Michael Jack, David Curry and Ian Taylor. With the majority of MPs now behind him, Mr Howard will have to balance his ticket with modernisers, centrists and those on the right.

Speaking to The World at One on BBC Radio 4, Mr Clarke said he had gathered from his meeting with the shadow Chancellor that the party's "obsession" with Europe would cease. "What Michael Howard has said so far is that he will lead from the centre of the party. I think he will reverse the lurch to the right ... and he will reverse the obsession with Europe," he said.

Mr Clarke revealed that he had voted against Mr Duncan Smith in the vote of confidence. He said he would not serve on the front bench because journalists would seek to create divisions between him and Mr Howard.