Clarke not a runner as Howard the leader in waiting

 

Britain: The Conservative Party leadership campaign appeared over before it had properly begun yesterday following Mr Kenneth Clarke's decision to rule himself out of the race and back Mr Michael Howard, writes Frank Millar, London Editor

With the support of almost 100 of the party's 165 MPs, Mr Howard seems almost certain to remain unopposed and thus assured "a coronation" when nominations close on Thursday.

One broadsheet newspaper even referred to Mr Howard as "the party's new but uncrowned" leader yesterday, as speculation turned to the likely winners and losers in his shadow cabinet reshuffle.

A challenge by a "maverick" candidate, possibly determined that Tory party members in the country should be given a choice, could not be entirely ruled out. However party insiders said the "settled will" of the parliamentary party was beyond doubt and the prospect of a "populist" right-wing candidacy appeared to recede as former challenger Mr John Redwood also appeared to firmly rule himself out.

While still keeping his options open against the possibility of a surprise nomination, Mr Michael Ancram yesterday added his name to the list of backbenchers supporting Mr Howard. He also won the endorsement of Mr Michael Portillo, following his admission earlier on Thursday that he did not have the necessary support from MPs to enter the race.

It was Mr Clarke's announcement yesterday, though, following talks with the new Tory crown prince, which removed the last remaining serious hurdle in the way of Mr Howard succeeding Mr Iain Duncan Smith.

In a warm and generous tribute to his friend - and rival - of some 40 years, Mr Clarke declared Mr Howard papabile. Speaking to reporters on the doorstep of his London home, Mr Clarke expressed confidence that Mr Howard was "the right man" to take on Mr Tony Blair and was a potential prime minister.

"He is an experienced politician with all the right political skills. He will frighten Tony Blair as he did when he used to be up against him when Tony Blair was his shadow. I think his political skills make him capable of being prime minister - papabile, as they would say if he was running for Pope," said Mr Clarke.

Welcoming Mr Howard's promise to lead the party "from its centre", Mr Clarke said the Conservatives had moved "far too much to the right" since 1997.

"He has said quite rightly that he is going to lead from the centre. That is the way he pitched his bid. Above everything else, I think he is the kind of person with real political feel who realises that is the only way of getting the Conservative Party back into an electable position."

Mr Clarke - who revealed he had voted against Mr Duncan Smith in Wednesday's confidence vote while again insisting he had not participated in plotting against him - also said he would not destabilise Mr Howard's leadership by challenging his opposition to membership of the euro.