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Sunday, 3 December, 2000, 04:05 GMT
Clarke: I'm ready to challenge Hague
Kenneth Clarke
Kenneth Clarke warns against Euro-sceptic "zealots"
Former Conservative Chancellor Kenneth Clarke has warned that in-fighting over Europe could doom the party's electoral prospects.

He has also revealed he would stand against Tory leader William Hague if a leadership election is held.

Writing in the Independent on Sunday, he said extreme Euro-sceptics were threatening the worst crisis in the party since Suez in 1956.

He urged "zealots" not to launch a "witch hunt" against pro-Europeans, and called for common sense and pragmatism.

The short-term electoral consequences and longer term political damage... could be severe

Kenneth Clarke
He has voiced his concerns because of moves to deselect the pro-European former minister, Ian Taylor, in his constituency of Esher and Walton.

Local members are due to meet on Monday to decide whether to drop Mr Taylor, their MP for 13 years, as candidate for the next general election.

The Tory leadership has expressed its disapproval of the petition, insisting Tory MPs should be free to express their individual opinions.

Mr Clarke warned the Esher and Walton meeting "could be a key occasion in determining the future nature of the Conservative Party".

"The short-term electoral consequences and longer term political damage that would flow from attempts made by the more extreme Euro-sceptics to force a narrow nationalism onto our MPs could be very severe," he wrote.

'Political damage'

Party divisions over the European Union were a factor behind the Conservatives' defeat at the general election, with the former chancellor one of those favouring closer ties.

The Independent on Sunday said Mr Clarke told a Westminster reception last week he would be ready to stand against party leader William Hague if there were a Conservative leadership contest after the next election.

Mr Clarke ran for leadership in 1997 but was defeated by Mr Hague.

With shadow chancellor Michael Portillo stating he had no intention to run for party leader earlier in the week, it could leave the door open for Mr Clarke to try again.

Shadow chancellor Michael Portillo
Michael Portillo: No ambition to be Tory leader
Mr Portillo was seeking to draw a line under heavy speculation that he had become disillusioned with politics and was considering leaving Westminster.

In a statement he insisted he was committed to the Tories and politics but had no ambitions to lead the party.

Instead, he said, his aim was to become chancellor following a Tory victory at the next election.

Labour party need not go to the polls before mid 2002, but it is widely thought Prime Minister Tony Blair has pencilled in 3 May 2001 as the date of the next general election.

The Conservatives enjoyed a sharp upturn in popularity in September, creeping just ahead of Labour after languishing well behind since losing office in May 1997.

But in recent weeks they have slipped back again, with a recent Mori poll for The Times putting Labour 15 percentage points ahead of the Tories.

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See also:

01 Dec 00 | UK Politics
Setting the scene for a second term
30 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Blair gets poll boost
03 Oct 00 | Conservatives
Portillo's 'euro-nonsense' - Clarke
07 Sep 00 | UK Politics
Heseltine: Bring back Clarke
17 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Euro worth the 'risk' - Clarke
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