Baroness Thatcher has entered the Tory leadership debate in forthright fashion, backing Iain Duncan Smith and saying he would make an "infinitely better leader" than his rival Kenneth Clarke.
Victory for pro-Europe Mr Clarke would present Tories with the unpalatable choice of division or hypocrisy, the former Prime Minister said in a letter to today's Daily Telegraph.
"Time and again, the Conservatives would be exposed as either hopelessly split or deeply cynical – either openly rebelling against their leader or going along with policies which they knew, and which others knew, to be wrong," she said. "I simply do not understand how Ken could lead today's Conservative Party to anything other than disaster. He is at odds with the majority of its members." Lady Thatcher's intervention comes the day after both candidates posted their personal manifestos to the party's 300,000 members. Launching his manifesto, former Chancellor Mr Clarke said that, if he became leader, he would be intentionally absent for the vote on the Nice Treaty, going against the Tory party line.
Mr Clarke's admission ruffled many right-wing feathers – and Europe provided the main thrust of Lady Thatcher's attack."He appears to be an even keener enthusiast of the euro than is the Prime Minister, let alone the Chancellor," she said. "He seems to view with blithe unconcern the erosion of Britain's sovereignty in Europe."
She also accused Mr Clarke of siding with Brussels against the United States and – countering claims that Mr Duncan Smith lacks ministerial experience – she takes Mr Clarke to task for his role under her successor John Major.
"It would have been reassuring to hear from Ken Clarke about some of the mistakes which, in 1997, led the Conservative Party to the greatest defeat in its history," she said.
"After all he – not Iain Duncan Smith – was one of those who made them." In another barbed reference, she adds: "While Mr Duncan Smith is criticised for lacking ministerial experience, it should be remembered that he does so only because he put his integrity before his ambition."
The furore proved Europe is still the major fault line running through the leadership contest.
Mr Clarke had stunned critics yesterday by announcing one of his first acts as Conservative leader would be to refuse to turn up to the House of Commons for the vote on the Nice Treaty in October.
Mr Clarke said he disagreed with his party's official policy of opposing the Nice Treaty – the first item of business when Parliament returns – and would absent himself as a result. Labour's majority will ensure the ratification will pass.
Mr Clarke said: "It may well be my diary will make it difficult for me to be there. The Nice Treaty will then be history. We might as well put it in the bag."
His comments were seized upon by Mr Duncan Smith, who said he intended to "lead from the front" and vigorously oppose the treaty, claiming Mr Clarke would be an "Awol leader".
Mr Duncan Smith said: "My view is clear – when the Nice vote comes, if I am leader, I will lead from the front. We will oppose it as we have been doing."
The prospect of a leader of the opposition abstaining from such an important vote – unprecedented in modern times – was also attacked by David Maclean, the MP for Penrith and the Borders who is a Duncan Smith supporter.
"This will blow up in our faces on the very first day back. As most of the Tory party marches through the "no" lobby, our newly-elected leader, who we are looking to for inspired leadership, would be abstaining. It's an absurd position," Mr Maclean said
"Every single week, Tony Blair will engineer a European question just to watch us writhe in agony. Questions on Europe won't wait four years for a referendum."
Mr Clarke hit back at threats that some right-wing supporters of Mr Duncan Smith could leave the party if their candidate failed to win. He said: "I think the Conservative Party has had quite enough of people throwing their toys out of their prams. Anybody from either wing of the party who says they are going to leave if they don't like the leader is free to go because that particular instinct is the kind of thing that has been undermining the party for the past 10 years.