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Has he changed his mind too late?

August 30th, 2005

Kenneth Clarke
Will Clarke’s switch on the euro come across as common sense or opportunism?

In the Conservative leadership race, the chances of Kenneth Clarke seem to have been rescued from a badly flagging position since Clarke – the only really prominent Conservative to have supported the euro – admitted that he now saw the single currency as “a failure”.

Less than two weeks ago, Clarke’s campaign was being deserted by former supporters such as Tony Baldry, with only John Bercow and Ann Widdecombe left as publically declared allies. Now the momentum has turned round. Tim Yeo may only have been a “leadership contender” to boost his shadow cabinet chances under the eventual winner, but his endorsement of Clarke seems to mark the stage where the former Chancellor has begun to be seen as in with a chance again. The betting markets agree, pulling Clarke’s odds in to 5.6/1. Doubtless Clarke and David Cameron would argue as to who it was that rejected the “dream ticket” idea first, but both are running hard in their own right.

Clarke argues that his great merit is his ability to beat Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and on what polling evidence is available, he is correct that he has more public appeal than other leadership candidates. On the other hand, polls about hypothetical alternative party leaders tend to reflect name recognition quite strongly rather than thought-out opinions on the candidates. Labour sources are reported as saying Clarke is the candidate they fear most, though parties would probably be wise not to try outfoxing their opponents based on comments which are conveniently allowed to leak to the press.

With British entry into the euro having fallen way down the political agenda, and a future Gordon Brown government unlikely to be in a hurry to resurrect it, Clarke’s change of position on it could be seen as a common-sense recognition of the facts of the current situation. But those who distrust Clarke will conjure up another parallel. In the approach to the final round of 1997 leadership election, Clarke made a deal with John Redwood, the most right-wing candidate in the contest, for his support. With so little political common ground between Clarke and Redwood, the odd coupling did not go down well with Tory MPs, and William Hague won the leadership by 22 votes. Whilst some of Clarke’s public appeal comes from the perception that he goes ahead and speaks his mind regardless of the consequences, supporters of other candidates may try to link his change in position with the Redwood pact in a pattern of opportunism.

Conspicuous by his absence from recent coverage has been frontrunner David Davis – and that may be the most advantageous position for him, while Clarke and Cameron are seen as fighting each other. With some fire drawn away from him, a three-horse race could boost Davis’s chances.

As punters in this market return to digest the long weekend’s news, the momentum towards Clarke should have further to run. And even if this is overdone, it does reflect a genuine recovery of his prospects from their low point. But beyond that, the transformation into a three-cornered contest has the effect of making David Davis (currently 0.75/1) better value than has been the case for a while.

Philip Grant
Guest editor

Mike Smithson is on holiday until 5th September.






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