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Sir Charles Powell, Margaret Thatcher's former foreign affairs private secretary, announced his intention to persuade his host, now the incumbent of the safest Tory seat in Britain, to stand for the leadership as "the only hope". For a second, in this amiable but unpredictable atmosphere of intrigue, you couldn't be quite sure that it was a joke.
That isn't, as it happens, Clark's intention. Instead he will run next week for the chairmanship of the 1922 committee - and incidentally, therefore, to be returning officer of the leadership contest - on a platform which will pledge to delay the contest on the grounds that the party is anything but ready for it.
One certain consequence is that the party membership would finally secure a say in the choice of leader, which Clark wants it to. If the contest were to be delayed, Michael Heseltine, his heart problems immediately after the election having disabled him from standing, would seem the obvious interim leader to run the party until a delayed contest in the autumn. But some on the right, digging deep into pre-20th century history, have even come up with arcane precedents suggesting that in the absence of a real leader, the post automatically falls to the party's leader in the Lords.
That would entrust, not for the first time, the party to a Salisbury, putting Lord Cranborne in charge until the party's great and good decided the moment had come and that, who knows, a Chris Patten or a Michael Portillo had won a by-election and laid claim to lead the opposition to Tony Blair. "If you leave the contest till after the summer, most of these cars will have lost their wheels," one senior Tory MP said, contemptuously contemplating today's leadership field.
A good deal of this is exotic speculation. Clark's chances of securing the chairmanship against duller rivals like Archie Hamilton, John MacGregor (probable favourite if Sir Norman Fowler does not run) and John Butterfill cannot be ruled out. It isn't only that Clark would add a dash of style to a party in shock. It is also that in an atmosphere in which MPs in once safe seats ruefully compare the sizes of each other's now fragile majorities, Clark's 54 per cent in Kensington and Chelsea gives him a mandate few can claim.
Apart from the leadership candidates themselves, it is the new MPs or those ex-ministers like Clark who have returned from the wilderness who appear to have the most energy and appetite for opposition. For them, after all, the result of 1 May was a victory as well as a defeat. It would be rash to dismiss the possibility that Clark, outsider though he may be, could be the 1922 chairman. But it looks unlikely that the leadership contest will, in the end, be delayed. Loose wheels or not, the motors are running.
And how. One experienced but undecided MP sums up events from polling day: Friday 2 May, a call from John Redwood; Bank Holiday Monday, calls from Stephen Dorrell and Michael Howard, the latter preceded, on the Sunday evening, by a pro-Howard MP enquiring whether he would be in the following day to take a call from the former Home Secretary. A mention to a fellow MP that he was undecided is followed within minutes by a call from Nigel Evans, a key member of the Hague team, to say that "William would love it if you could come in and have a chat with him." A chance encounter with Kenneth Clarke followed by a genial lunch in the Commons tea room. The former Chancellor, typically, made no effort at a hard sell, althoughhis team is in earnest and is already claiming 30 firm pledges along with 10 - 20 less firm ones. Nothing, yet, from Peter Lilley.
The Howard campaign looks the most aggressive, even though its key members deny that they were responsible for the counter-attack on Ann Widdecombe after her claim that Howard has misled the Commons over the sacking of the former prisons boss Derek Lewis. Widdecombe, it was said, backed Lewis because she had a crush on him. Whatever the source, this outlandish claim has done more damage to Howard than to his tormentor, who will continue to harry Howard despite predictably failing to secure Commons time yesterday to air her grievances.
One of the most interesting long-term developments of the leadership battle is the slow, tentative flowering of the democratic impulse in the Tory party. Robin Hodgson, chairman of the National Union of Conservative Associations, has consistently pressed for the members to have a say. So now have Clark, and at the suggestion of his backer Lord Archer, has Peter Lilley - for leadership elections after this one. In the short run, with a depleted membership, that would probably help the candidates of the right. In the long run, it would help, as the Liberal Democrats and Labour have shown, to increase membership, something vital for the Tories.
Perhaps the most arresting suggestion, with its overtones both of the Bennite Labour reforms of the early 1980s and of the more modernising shift to One Member One Vote democracy, comes from Michael Fallon, an ex-minister who lost his seat in 1992 and has now returned as MP for Sevenoaks. He is proposing a recorded vote of MPs, with ballots of constituency parties, also recorded. An immediate effect would be to make it much more difficult for MPs to vote (currently they do so in secret) against the wishes of their local parties.
So who is it to be? Conventional wisdom has it that Redwood's support has severely shrunk since 1995; John Major told a friend he would not get more than 30 votes. That Howard has been seriously, perhaps fatally, damaged by the Widdecombe attack. (Interestingly, moreover, it is said that it was Tory grandees rather than his younger lieutenants who privately persuaded William Hague to renounce the short-lived pact he had made over champagne with Howard, and which might have made Howard a shoe-in.) That Dorrell, by moving to from the left kerb to the middle of the road will get run over. That Lilley, though most attractive to the ideological purists of the right, lacks the charisma to break through at the finish. And that Clarke, even if he has a strong, perhaps, given the serious split on the right, the strongest, showing in the first ballot, will not be able significantly to increase his vote in the second, let alone, if he makes it, in the run-off. And that Hague, with his Majorish qualities of appealing to both wings of the party, looks the front-runner.
But conventional wisdom has been wrong before. Consider this new and counter-intuitive theory: that on the single currency, the theological issue that most divides the Tory party (theological because it will not actually be the Tories taking the decision over whether to join) and on which Clarke has promised a free vote, Clarke's election would actually make entry into a single currency less likely in the next parliament than that of any other leader.
Why? Clarke has a strongly traditional view that the function of an opposition, rather like the lawyer he is fulfilling a brief, is to oppose. If the Blair Cabinet were to decide in favour of EMU entry, Clarke might well argue that it was the wrong moment, that the criteria had been fudged, that it might be economically damaging, that it could put at risk popular support for the EU. And would be listened to by business. If it were Howard and Lilley, their opposition might be ignored because it was ideological, and Clarke, on the back benches, would lead a rump of business-backed Tories in support of the Government.
Well, it is only a theory, though an ingenious one. But whether or not it is Hague who squeaks home - as looks likely - the party should listen to Clarke. In a Daily Telegraph article yesterday he was uncompromising in his message that the Tories have to demonstrate they can "combine a social conscience with economic competence". The worst mistake the candidates could now make would be to think that all they need to win an election is a Peter Mandelson. True, membership is old and small. True, the councillor activist base has crumbled. Organisation is a problem, but it wasn't organisation wot lost it.
KENNETH CLARKE, 56
Backers: David Curry, John Gummer, Michael Mates, ex-MEP Michael Welsh, Justin Powell Tuck. Watch out for Douglas Hurd.
For: experienced, feared by Labour. Some right-wingers might prefer him to William Hague if he made third ballot. Business likes him.
Against: pro-EMU if the conditions are right.
STEPHEN DORRELL, 45
Backers: Simon Burns, David Faber, Peter Luff, Shaun Woodward.
For: articulate, clever, track record of caring conservatism which could compete with Blair. Sceptic on EMU. A catch for any rival.
Against: pre-election gaffe on EMU. Has trimmed on Europe, alienating left without convincing right.
MICHAEL HOWARD, 55.
Backers: Francis Maude, David Davis, David Maclean, all ex-ministers of state.
For: heavyweight departmental experience. Leading Euro-sceptic in previous Cabinet. Good at kicking political opponents.
Against: tendency to go over the top. Not much appeal to left wing. Heartily opposed by liberals including Tory liberals.
WILLIAM HAGUE, 36
Backers: James Arbuthnot, James Paice, Alan Duncan (ex-Portilloist),Tim Yeo.
For: youth, clean slate. Popular. Rightish background with appeal to left.
Against: youth, could block other aspirants for many years to come. Not right- wing enough for the hard right.
JOHN REDWOOD, 45
Backers: Iain Duncan Smith Angela Browning, Howard Flight, Oliver Letwin, David Wilshire, Marion Roe.
For: brainy (PhD). Courageous (resigned from Cabinet to challenge Major in 1995). Hugely energetic.
Against: can be accused of boat-rocking in pre-election period. Heartily disliked by Tory establishment.
PETER LILLEY, 53
Backers: Gillian Shephard John Whittingdale (ex-Portilloist), David Willetts, Lord Archer
For: formidable intellectual. Many MPs' favourite candidate for Chancellor. Catch for any rival. Serious right-winger.
Against: no charisma. Not easy to see in presidential-style campaign.
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