Widdecombe leads crowded field in a phoney war

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Indy Politics

Ann Widdecombe was the first Tory leadership contender out of the blocks yesterday as the battle for the heart and soul of the Conservative Party got under way in earnest.

Less than 48 hours after William Hague stunned the party by resigning, numerous Conservatives were refusing to rule themselves out of the race for the leadership.

The crowded field in the phoney election race includes Francis Maude, the shadow Foreign Secretary; Michael Portillo, the shadow Chancellor; the former chancellor Kenneth Clarke; the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, Iain Duncan Smith; and Miss Widdecombe.

Other possible candidates includes Liam Fox, Tim Yeo, Bernard Jenkin, Bill Cash, John Redwood and David Davis. Speculation reached fever pitch yesterday as almost one in 10 of the parliamentary party were mentioned in connection with the top job.

Senior Tories toured television studios, jostling for airtime to talk about turning over the mistakes of the past four years. All eyes, however, were on Mr Portillo and Mr Clarke. The shadow Chancellor was expected to fly back from a short break in Morocco tonight to announce his intentions within the next 48 hours. Mr Clarke was consulting his supporters today as he considers whether to give Mr Portillo his backing or stand himself. Mr Maude played down his own ambitions, but is certain to stand if Mr Portillo decides not to run.

Miss Widdecombe, fresh from a makeover, with a new hairstyle and baby pink jacket, piled pressure on the Tory field to declare yesterday morning, making her intentions clear on the BBC's Breakfast with Frost.

She said: "There are quite a lot of people who would like me to run, but that doesn't mean I can just jump in. I've got to take soundings just to see how wide the support is, consider what I've got to offer."

She added: "One of the reasons why I'm giving this interview today is not just to talk about that, it's because over the last few days our activists will have been shattered, the loyal people who voted for us will have been shattered.

"I don't think we can all go away and hide because we're afraid of being asked questions about the leadership. I think we've now got to give a strong voice and talk about the future, the future, the future. You learn from the past, you don't dwell on it."

She defended the Conservatives' much-criticised decision to campaign hard on Europe, asylum and tax, but promised a broad-based Shadow Cabinet, arguing that the party had to regain the centre ground.

The odds on Miss Widdecombe succeeding Mr Hague shortened from 8/1 to 5/1. Mr Portillo retained his position as favourite with William Hill at 10/11, ahead of Mr Duncan Smith at 5/2 and Mr Clarke at 9/2. Mr Maude was at 10/1, Mr Davis 14/1 and Mr Fox 16/1.

Chris Patten, the European Commissioner, was one of the few senior Conservatives to rule himself out of the race, saying that he would remain a European Commissioner until January 2005 and that after that date "the gardening begins".

Mr Patten said that it was possible for the Tories to win the next election, but acknowledged this would be "very, very difficult". The party must carry out a "radical overhaul" of its policies, he said. "A successful Conservative Party has to be able to accommodate the views of Michael Portillo and Kenneth Clarke. It has got to be a broad church, not a narrow sect."

Michael Heseltine, the former deputy prime minister, threw his weight behind Kenneth Clarke. He told Sky News: "Ken Clarke is the most popular Conservative in the country. He has all the qualities that are needed, except the fact that the party has got this mental blockage of putting Europe at the top end of the political spectrum, which is completely in contrast to the way the public think about it."

John Maples, the former shadow foreign secretary, also backed Mr Clarke, and warned that party against leadership contenders tainted by the party's election strategy.

But Bill Cash, the leading eurosceptic backbencher, disagreed. "I have an immense respect for Iain Duncan Smith and also for David Davis," he said. Colleagues were even speculating that the maverick MP for Stone might to tempted to have a tilt at the job.

Meanwhile, Mr Maude said: "I am genuinely not thinking about that ... Our party workers have just been through a magnificent campaign, where they have fought superbly. If they thought that all we were doing was worrying about our own personal positions, they would rightly be very fed up."

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