Very strange bedfellows

`It's incredible ... it will not stand the test of time, it is a marriage made in hell' Steve Norris
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The Independent Online
Kenneth Clarke and John Redwood yesterday joined forces against William Hague, the Tories' young pretender. The Clarke-Redwood alliance ahead of today's final knock-out bout in the leadership contest was quickly denounced as a "marriage from hell".

After a bizarre night and morning of barter, Mr Redwood decided it was time to end his self-imposed exile in the political wilderness and accept the offer of the job which Mr Clarke holds - Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer.

However, even as Mr Clarke and Mr Redwood were announcing their deal, Baroness Thatcher was finally endorsing Mr Hague's campaign on the apparent grounds that any opponent of Mr Clarke's was a friend of her's.

The cross-currents were running so strongly in the party last night that either man could yet emerge as victor when the final result is announced after 5pm in Commons Committee Room 14 today. Clarke campaigners, though, said they were confident of a double-figure majority.

Tuesday's preliminary bout gave Mr Redwood 38 votes and those will be redistributed today. On the face of it, Mr Clarke needs 19 of them, in addition to Tuesday's 64, to guarantee him 83 votes and the crown. On the same basis, Mr Hague, who won 62 votes on Tuesday, needs 21 of the Redwood votes to guarantee his place as new leader.

As always in politics, there are complicating factors. If some MPs abstain today, the winner would need fewer than 83 votes to win. There was Westminster speculation last night that some of the Hague votes were "slipping" to Clarke, as Tory MPs searched for a winner with momentum - in which case Mr Hague would need to compensate for any losses.

Yesterday was a day of high drama. It began at 10.30am, with Mr Redwood appearing on the steps of his political think tank, Conservative 2000, to announce the outline of his deal with Mr Clarke - that a Clarke shadow cabinet would be allowed a free vote on a European single currency.

Responding for the Hague camp, former minister Steve Norris told BBC Radio Five: "It is an incredible development, it will not stand the test of time, it is a marriage made in hell."

Other, more senior figures were more circumspect, but nonetheless damning. Michael Howard, who switched to Mr Hague after he had come bottom of the poll in the first round, said: "This is an instability pact."

Lady Thatcher called it "an incredible alliance of opposites".

The deal had been agreed in outline at a meeting on Tuesday night. But Mr Redwood's supporters wanted the job of shadow Chancellor for their man. That was agreed, without hesitation, by Mr Clarke in a phone call yesterday morning.

At noon, Mr Clarke and Mr Redwood appeared with a gang of their supporters - only five from the Redwood camp - for a formal press conference in the same Church House hall that Mr Blair had used to deliver his first address to the Parliamentary Labour Party last month.

"This is not an agreement that has been entered into for the next 24 hours. This agreement is for five years at least," Mr Clarke said.

Mr Redwood said: "I have a great respect for Ken as a man and as a politician. I think he will land many a punch on Mr Blair and we need to do that very shortly." Less than three hours later, John Major faced Tony Blair for his last Prime Minister's question time.

Mr Redwood also said that he was "fed up" with the fragmentation, or "Balkanisation", of the Conservative Party. "I want to make my contribution to getting it together."

Those remarks caused some spluttering in the Commons among Mr Major's friends. But the most significant remarks from Mr Clarke and Mr Redwood were those showing such contempt for Mr Hague's line on the single currency that they could not possibly serve in his frontbench team.

Mr Redwood said that if he had agreed to serve under Mr Hague he would have had to eat his words. Mr Clarke said Mr Hague had put forward a single currency proposition "on which neither John nor I could conceivably agree and retain any credibility whatever."

The two men made vain appeals for Mr Hague to withdraw from the contest. But, buoyed up by the Thatcher blessing, Mr Hague later staged a triumphal procession in a Westminster restaurant, declaring his determination to fight on.