Ken Clarke: Don't rule me out. I could still be a contender

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Indy Politics

Ken Clarke will drop "his strongest hint yet" today that he wants to be leader of the Conservative Party and the next Tory Prime Minister.

Ken Clarke will drop "his strongest hint yet" today that he wants to be leader of the Conservative Party and the next Tory Prime Minister.

The arrival of the biggest name on the Tory back benches will intensify the battle over the future of the party, which promises to be one of the longest and most crowded leadership contests in political history. It is expected to last until October.

All of the other dozen or so potential candidates are associated with the anti-European right of the party. The left, which united behind Mr Clarke in the last two leadership elections, has been unrepresented so far. But Mr Clarke will have to overcome suspicions that he does not seriously want the job, and that his time has anyway passed.

The Tory right will be offered another candidate later in the week when David Willetts, one of the cleverest members of the opposition front bench, will send out a signal that he, too, is a contender.

Officially, the contest for the party leadership has not begun, because MPs and senior volunteers are still arguing over election rules. Last week, Tory MPs heavily rejected Michael Howard's proposed rule changes and voted to give themselves sole power to choose a leader.

As a backbench MP, Mr Clarke has been consistently more pro-EU and more liberal on social issues that the party leadership. He was also a leading opponent of the Iraq war. But some Tory MPs who have supported him in the past are undecided about whether to back him again.

Ian Taylor, who was sacked from the Tory front bench for his pro-European views, is expected to switch support to Mr Davis, after being a lead member of the Clarke camp in previous contests.

Robert Walter, another left-wing Tory said: "I supported Ken in the last two elections because his and my politics coincide - but whether he can lead the party is probably less likely now than it was."

Opinion polls show that Mr Clarke is still the most popular Tory MP with voters, especially non-Tory voters. Ladbrokes was offering odds of 11-1 yesterday on his winning the contest, making him the fourth favourite. The lead runners are seen as being the shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, at 4-6, and the much younger shadow Education Secretary, David Cameron, at 6-1.

Mr Clarke will appear on ITV's Jonathan Dimbleby Programme today. Supporters of the former chancellor have said that, if asked, he will make it clear that he does not think his age, or his pro-EU views, rule him out as a contender.