With Tories in Notts, Clarke waits for the call

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The Independent Online
"THE LADY'S an enthusiastic supporter. Says I should have been prime minister," announced Kenneth Clarke, winking as he marched out of a wool shop.

Mr Clarke is on the stump in his Rushcliffe constituency, joining the council election fight which is too tight to call but which the Tories dare not lose. For the canvassers padding around in his formidable wake beneath a bright Nottingham sun, "Kenneth Clarke, Leader of the Opposition", would probably be enough. Tory activists know that Rushcliffe is one of those marginals which will put the Conservatives to the acid test in Thursday's council elections and do not hide their exasperation with the leadership.

"Why can't they all just go away on holiday?" one sighed. "This is all about presentation and Ken's so good - on the TV and the doorstep. If you ask me, he'd still fancy the leadership."

Although flavour of the month with the pollsters - a Mori poll in yesterday's Mail on Sunday had Tory support leaping from 30 to 35 per cent if Mr Clark replaced William Hague - Mr Clarke enjoys Nottinghamshire's relaxed pace and the escape it offers from a party which threatens to implode. "This seems to be where real life is," he said.

As canvassing preparations begin, Mr Clarke has assumed much needed control of the little group which is going to a rather soulless new estate of detached homes near the village of Gamston.

New houses have brought more than 1,000 new electors into this ward, all vital virgin territory for candidates who want to take the ward's three seats back from Labour. Overall, the Tories hold this council by the mayor's casting vote. It will be a disaster for them if they do not convert that to a majority on Thursday. Ten years ago, this kind of pounds 200,000 house would have barely needed a Tory canvasser. Now each is a political lottery - "Call it modern-day political volatility," Mr Clarke said.

This is no place for Mr Hague. "Hague is vapid," said one blunt pensioner.

Although many locals view their MP's political career as a closed book, in the local Conservative Club there was an air of desperation over the leadership. "It has to be Ken Clarke. The rest are worse than a busted flush," one member said.

But for Mr Clarke, force of personality is not the key to success in what a decade ago was a Tory borough. The party, which hopes for a 50- 60 per cent turn-out, has to invigorate the electorate. The main town, West Bridgford, seems to border on the apolitical. You would struggle to find a single election poster here for any party.

Large swathes of Rushcliffe council area, which takes in almost all of Nottinghamshire south of the Trent, are agricultural but West Bridgford has missed the pain the closure of coalfields brought 10 miles to the north. When jobs have been shed, there have always been large financial service outfits or a huge, new credit-reference agency to fill the gap.

The town's Abbey Road has pounds 100,000 semis, secondhand Cavaliers and Sierras. Mr Clarke, who is more hopeful about prospects here than the canvassers, fields questions about pedestrianisation and foxes. No, not fox-hunting. Foxes. Around the dustbins. Number 10 leaves food for them but number 12 wants them got rid of. This time, Mr Clarke is on the fence. He likes foxes, except when they are in his own back garden.