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Monday, 16 April, 2001, 23:07 GMT 00:07 UK
Clarke denies Tory leadership plot
Michael Portillo and William Hague
Mr Portillo has denied leadership ambitions
Former chancellor Kenneth Clarke has dismissed reports he will help Michael Portillo become the next leader of the Conservative Party.

Newspaper reports have suggested Mr Clarke has agreed to back Mr Portillo to replace William Hague as leader after the general election.


I have not backed Michael Portillo or anybody else for any future leadership contest

Kenneth Clarke
The reports said Mr Clarke would help deliver Tory left wingers to defeat Mr Hague or a candidate from the right of the party.

But Mr Clarke dismissed the reports on Monday saying they were "fiction" and Mr Portillo was said to be urging his supporters to concentrate on the general election.

Invention

He said: "I have read with incredulity the stories concerning me, Michael Portillo and the Conservative Party leadership which have appeared in several newspapers over the last few days.

"There is no leadership contest. I have not backed Michael Portillo or anybody else for any future leadership contest.

"All these stories are a bank holiday press invention with journalists reporting each other. The whole thing is fiction.

"I have spent the last few days reading very few newspapers, doing nothing political and not talking about the leadership with anybody.

"The newspaper stories have therefore caused me some amusement when they have been drawn to my attention."

Kenneth Clarke
Mr Clarke denied supporting Michael Portillo
Mr Clarke denied reports he had approached John Stevens, the former Tory MEP who founded the breakaway Pro-Euro Conservatives, to ask him not to stand against Mr Portillo in his Kensington and Chelsea seat in the election.

On Saturday the Independent newspaper reported Mr Stevens as saying: "Clarke had a telephone conversation with me, and he asked us generally not to run and he said that it would be counter-productive to stand in Kensington."

He told BBC News on Monday: "Ken thinks that Michael Portillo, if he becomes leader, would give to frontbenchers the freedom to campaign in favour of the euro, not just in the referendum but in the crucial period running up to a referendum, when the public will be moved so that a referendum can be called."

But Mr Clarke said: "I have never asked John Stevens not to stand against Michael Portillo in his constituency.

"I have spoken to John Stevens once in the last two years. He telephoned me and I declined his suggestion that I should issue a statement asking him not to stand at the next general election."

Tory backbencher Ian Taylor, a close ally of Mr Clarke who faced a deselection battle because of his pro-European views, insisted that talk of leadership challenges was not coming from leading members of the party's centre-left.

"The Tory left has got its differences with William Hague and I wish he would get back to one-nation politics and be more positive about Europe, but we are not in any way trying to raise the question of the leadership.

"That is a matter that will be decided as a result of the election."

Call for unity

The Sun newspaper reported that Mr Portillo had spoken out over the claims.

It quoted him saying: "I'm totally committed to getting this Conservative Party into government with William Hague as prime minister.

"William and myself are fighting together to beat Labour - and that's what everyone in the party should be doing."

Aldershot MP Gerald Howarth also called on all Tories to rally behind William Hague and his stance on Europe.

"I think the best message that the Conservative Party collectively can give to the country is to rally behind William Hague.

"Anything else is merely likely to damage our chances at the election."

He added: "We should be bending every sinew supporting William Hague, who I think has done a remarkable job as leader of the Opposition, in extremely difficult circumstances, in rebuilding the party and striking a definitive Conservative chord, particularly on the key issue of Europe."

Conservative Central Office has refused to comment on the issue.

See also:

03 Dec 00 | UK Politics
03 Dec 00 | UK Politics
29 Nov 00 | UK Politics
29 Nov 00 | UK Politics
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