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banner Tuesday, 3 October, 2000, 15:42 GMT 16:42 UK
Clarke's big tent
"Buchannan's Marquees - marriages for all occasions" read the sign above the venue, but the only union being celebrated was the European kind.

It was standing room only for Ken Clarke's appearance at the Conservative Group for Europe/European Union of Women European rally on the Conservative conference fringe in Bournemouth.

As Tory leader William Hague was presiding over a rival fringe event (the Tory Central Office-organised Keep the Pound rally), just a short walk along the sea-front Mr Clarke was addressing the crowd assembled under his big tent.

As the seaside gale threatened to whip away the canvas, the former chancellor cheerfully told the meeting he was not particularly out of step with his own party.

He was, he mock-protested, rather "on message".

And before any heckler dared shout out "What about Europe?" Mr Clarke was himself setting out the Conservatives' pre-manifesto document, which contained "encouraging signs" for the Tory pro-European camp.

The document implicitly stated clear support for remaining in the European Union.

It also "unambiguously endorsed" its enlargement to the east - the most important issue facing the EU, according to Mr Clarke.

As for that tricky subject of the euro, he remained "quite confident" that it would become clear to the British public that it was in the UK's financial and political interests to sign up at some future stage.

William Hague had not ruled out joining the euro at some stage; and Mr Clarke did not support immediate entry. This difference over timing was "not a yawning gap".

In fact, it was those "out on the fringe" on Europe who were "more out of touch on official policy than I am".

All in all, when it came to the party's Believing in Britain plan for government, policy on Europe "is the only part of the document with which I have some difficulty".

And no politician, he pointed out, agreed with every single bit of their party's manifesto.

In the course of his address the warm stuffiness of the marquee rose, leaving Mr Clarke in a similar state to Tony Blair when the prime minister addressed a slightly larger gathering in Brighton last week: sweat stains spreading across his shirt.

He joked that the combination of having to shout to make himself heard with the audience at the back of the marquee, plus the heat, was "makes me look more like Tony Blair by the moment, but that is an entire coincidence!"

Those Tories who complained at the outspokenness of the Europhiles should also stop moaning: "The support of pro-Europeans in the Conservative Party, and even more importantly the pro-European section of the population, is absolutely crucial if we are going to win the next general election."

As the marquee "walls" billowed alarmingly inwards, he turned to the No result of last week's Danish referndum on joining the euro.

It had not changed his mind at all on the benefits of the euro. Furthermore, the British were a "more sophisticated electorate".

The expression of faith was a little spoilt when he later remarked that according to opinion polls, "30% of British people truly believe there is a [Euro-] regulation requiring bananas to be straight!"

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