Clarke makes most sense, but the Tories aren't being sensible

It is a contest in which the electorate routinely lie about their voting intentions
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The Independent Online
Suddenly, Ken Clarke has become a man to beat. Suddenly, from being a rank outsider he is now Ladbroke's odds on favourite at 5-2 to win the Tory leadership contest. Suddenly, the question about how he will do in today's first ballot is not whether he will do well, but whether he is ahead of his rivals. Suddenly, it looks as if the bedraggled, demoralised constituency officers out in the country think Clarke offers the best chance of recovering from their biggest disaster in nearly a century.

The problem, as Clarke and his supporters know best, is that none of this, least of all Ladbroke's odds, is a reliable guide to the final outcome. It is a contest in which the electorate routinely lie about their voting intentions (and sometimes about their votes after they have cast them) to the candidates, to their party constituency chairmen, and to each other. The party at large has no formal say in the process. Indeed, it's a peculiar feature of this contest that so much attention is being lavished on the vexed question of who will come third in today's ballot. One assumption is that Clarke will come first, William Hague second, and either Michael Howard or Peter Lilley third. Discount speculation that either Lilley or Howard would carry on if they came fourth. The most probable of several plausible scenarios is that whoever comes fourth will drop out and back the man in third place. And that the second ballot next Tuesday will be a contest between Clarke, Hague and Howard or Lilley. All sorts of permutations then follow. And not all of these ensure that Clarke, bookmakers' favourite or not, will even make the final ballot. Hague v Howard, Hague v Lilley are contests which conspicuously fail to offer a remotely credible answer to the question of what went wrong on 1 May. But they could still happen.

Which it's why it's still worth repeating why Clarke not only can but should win. Leave aside for a moment that the opinion polls put Ken Clarke far ahead of his rivals among the electorate. Or that he is one of the few ministers from the previous government with a record which helped rather hindered its electoral fortunes. Or that he could be as much of a danger outside a shadow cabinet as he would be an asset leading it. Or that during John Major's agonies after Black Wednesday but before the Tories started to self-destruct in earnest over Europe he was widely seen as the only credible alternative Prime Minister. Or that because of his freedom from ideological fundamentalism he is the only contender capable of landing blows against Labour - for example when the going gets rough on NHS spending. (Try and imagine any of that from Peter Lilley or Michael Howard.) Or that the Tory party could yet be sleepwalking towards exactly the same mistake Labour made when it decided to ignore the wider electorate, punished Denis Healey for angering large sections of the party in the run-up to an election defeat, and chose Michael Foot. Let's consider the supposed reasons for not picking Clarke instead.

In fact there is only one: Europe. It isn't as if Clarke's record as a Cabinet minister throughout the Thatcher/ Major years is anything but a qualification for the job. Consider for a moment this job reference - from someone who certainly thought of him as a possible future leader in the 1980s: "He was an extremely effective Health minister, tough in dealing with vested interests and trade unions, direct and persuasive in his exposition of government policy ... In the face of the campaign of misinformation, Ken Clarke was the best possible advocate we could have." That was written by Margaret Thatcher when she had every reason to be bitter that Clarke had been prominent among ministers warning her she couldn't win in 1990.

The reason, of course, that the author of that encomium will do what she can to rally the anti-Clarke forces later this week is that she doesn't trust him on Europe. And that is surely to miss how far the argument has moved on. For the forces ranged against Clarke in the leadership contest are missing something important. Michael Howard, for all his image problems the most driven of the rivals, prophesied before the election that the Amsterdam IGC next week would be the beginning of the end of the nation state. It won't be. It looks like producing a deal which enshrines Britain's right to border controls, sacrifices no sovereignty on foreign policy and probably makes some gains on fishing as well. But Howard and his fellow Eurosceptics have also been envisaging a post-millennium election in which they argue for renegotiation of Britain's EU membership and Tony Blair has signed up, hook line and sinker, to EU federalism. It is not simply that the doubts now clouding EMU formation in Bonn and Paris have worked in Clarke's interests because they make either a delay, or a fudge which he can credibly oppose, much more likely. Clarke's election might make EMU entry less rather than more likely since his opposition, precisely because it wouldn't be ideological, would be taken all the more seriously. It's also that Tony Blair's approach to Europe, enshrined in last week's Malmo speech, and bristling with tough talk about labour market flexibility and global competitiveness undermine, perhaps fatally, the idea that the Tories reason for living in this parliament will be to protect the nation state from Brussels.

As it happens the best third ballot contest would be a cathartic high noon between Howard and Clarke. Short of course of another solution - that Clarke wins outright in today's first ballot. But then the one safe prediction is that this won't happen. Not for the first time in the Tory party, the most sensible outcome is also the most implausible.