Portillo faces a fight on three fronts for the Tory leadership

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Indy Politics

Ann Widdecombe withdrew from the Tory leadership contest yesterday and announced she would return to the back benches and devote her energies to stopping Michael Portillo claiming the Tory crown.

As she expressed her "regrets" over being forced to bow out of the leadership contest Miss Widdecombe blamed a lack of support among her fellow MPs for the decision.

On a day of some confusion in the Tory leadership race, Iain Duncan Smith was bounced into announcing his intention to stand by his own supporter Bernard Jenkin. Mr Duncan Smith had planned formally to declare his candidacy today in an 8am statement in Westminster. However, Mr Jenkin, a junior member of the Tory front bench backing Mr Duncan Smith, surprised colleagues by announcing the candidature in a radio interview. Mr Duncan Smith was forced to confirm he would stand and said he would make a full statement today.

David Davis, the Eurosceptic chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, will also announce today his intention to stand for the leadership, putting Mr Portillo under pressure from three different fronts.

Mr Duncan Smith's declaration was welcomed by Miss Widdecombe. "Mr Duncan Smith has apparently declared. I believe that he is extremely able. I hope others will also come forward," she said.

Miss Widdecombe said she was not backing away from the contest because of any lack of will on her own part or from her local party but because of "a lack of support from my parliamentary colleagues. And therefore unless Michael Portillo looks like being unopposed, I shall not be putting my name forward, I regret very much that the Conservative membership will never even have the opportunity to consider me for the position of leader."

She made a withering attack on Mr Portillo, hinting she would be prepared to use her influence with the Tory rank and file to halt his ambitions. "Last week I announced that I would not serve Michael Portillo if he became leader," she said. "There is no other likely contender of whom I could say that, and I would have no difficulty in principle with working for anyone else."

Miss Widdecombe has not ruled out backing any of the other candidates, but she pointedly heaped praise on the former chancellor Kenneth Clarke, who has yet to declare his intention to stand. "I am an enormous admirer of Ken Clarke and I believe he has the personality to lead the party."

She denied she was "knifing" the shadow Chancellor, but in a reference to her earlier claim that his supporters were "backbiters" she said she was tired of dealing with his entourage.

Miss Widdecombe was stoical about returning to the back benches after 10 years as a minister and shadow minister. "Nobody leaves the front bench without regrets," she said, adding: "I don't waste time emoting. I leave that to others."

She said she now wished to spend time with her elderly mother and be a voice from the back benches for the "forgotten decent" ­ people living on run-down council estates.

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