Widdecombe quits race and backs Clarke for Tory leader

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Ann Widdecombe will announce tomorrow that she is pulling out of the Tory leadership campaign and will back Kenneth Clarke as the candidate most likely to stop Michael Portillo winning the crown.

The Shadow Home Secretary is still furious with the "Portillistas" for destabilising William Hague's leadership and believes neither of the two possible right-wing challengers, Iain Duncan Smith and David Davis, can stop Mr Portillo.

Attending a family wedding, Ms Widdecombe told friends: "I am getting a huge amount of support among the party membership, but that is not reflected in the party at the Commons."

Ms Widdecombe is a formidable addition to a growing right-left coalition to stop Mr Portillo. She is in talks with Mr Clarke to give him her backing, if he decides to run. The former Chancellor is gathering support from some Thatcherites and from the pro-European centre, but he has told The Independent on Sunday that he is agonising over whether to run.

Speaking exclusively to the IoS, Mr Clarke disclosed that he believes he can beat the front-runner, Mr Portillo, in the ballot among party members, but doubts the viability of becoming an "imposed" leader on Eurosceptic MPs at Westminster.

"I'm not quite sure that a party that has just fought a ferociously Eurosceptic campaign is ready to be led by a pro-European," Mr Clarke said.

The anti-euro Portillo camp is still putting out feelers to Mr Clarke to persuade him to back their candidate with a deal that would allow Mr Clarke freedom to speak out in a referendum on the single currency.

A similar offer will be made to Mr Clarke's supporters by David Davis, who is poised to join the race as the "dark horse" candidate to edge out Mr Duncan Smith. Mr Duncan Smith has made it clear to the IoS that he will run, but is delaying for a week to build up more momentum at Westminster.

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