Major backs Clarke in Conservative leadership contest

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Indy Politics

The former Prime Minister John Major has given his full backing to Kenneth Clarke in the increasingly bitter battle for the Tory leadership.

Mr Major has told friends that he believes that Mr Clarke is "clearly the best candidate" when compared to his rival Iain Duncan Smith, The Independent has learned.

His views will act as a counterbalance to the expected endorsements of Mr Duncan Smith by fellow former Conservative leaders William Hague and Baroness Thatcher.

Mr Major will hint at his support for his former Chancellor in a magazine article next week. A senior Tory source close to Mr Major said: "There's no doubt that John believes that Ken is the man with the experience and public appeal to win back the missing six million voters we lost at the election."

It is understood Mr Major viewed Mr Duncan Smith as a key activist among the Eurosceptics who sniped at his leadership and dogged his Government until defeat in 1997.

Mr Major's endorsement emerged as Mr Duncan Smith sought to counter claims that he had been repeatedly disloyal to the last Conservative Prime Minister. The Clarke camp has released figures showing that Mr Duncan Smith had voted 11 times against the Major Government as the Maastricht Treaty passed through Parliament.

But the shadow Defence Secretary's campaign hit back by pointing out that he had voted on what he believed was a matter of conscience over the erosion of British powers to Brussels. His spokesman pointed out that Churchill, Disraeli and Macmillan had all rebelled against their own party before going on to lead it.

As the two-week truce in the contest ended, Mr Clarke won the backing of some two-thirds of Tory members of the Greater London Authority and of London council leaders who had declared their support.

Mr Clarke is to embark on a 70-event nationwide whistle-stop tour, while Mr Duncan Smith maintained that he remained the underdog despite his apparently strong position.

A spokesman for Baroness Thatcher refused to rule out the possibility of the former leader declaring for Mr Duncan Smith.