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Monday, 18 June, 2001, 12:36 GMT 13:36 UK
Widdecombe's leadership warning
Shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe
Widdecombe will be backbench conscience
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

Ann Widdecombe has abandoned her Tory leadership ambitions and stood down from front line politics with a huge sideswipe at her own party.

Her statement dismayed many Tory MPs who, while not willing to support her as their leader, fear she will cause huge trouble from the backbenches.

She also kept the Conservatives guessing about who she would now support as leader, with both Iain Duncan Smith and Kenneth Clarke at the top of her list.

The one person she quite definitely will not be backing is Michael Portillo, towards whom she has reserved particular animosity.

Tory MP Kenneth Clarke
Clarke has Widdecombe's support
Her comments were seen as a warning that she was out to act as the voice of grassroots party members and would be keeping a close watch on the contenders to see if they were staying true to core Tory values.

Anyone who strays - as she believes Mr Portillo has already done - will not win her backing.

Doris Karloff

Whether the contenders will see that as a plus or a minus is an open question, but they know ordinary party members will listen carefully to what Miss Widdecombe says and must take that into account.

She has always been far more popular among the activists than with her Commons colleagues and she was clearly angry at the fact they were not ready to back her.

Her uncompromising right-wing views were clearly part of her problem with those looking for a more centrist approach, but so was her image.

The Doris Karloff nickname has always haunted her and colleagues have suggested she simply is not young or good looking enough to take the party into the next general election.

There were also signs that she was disillusioned with her party and was still smarting from the way she was attacked by shadow cabinet members over her disastrous "zero tolerance" speech at last year's conference.

Shadow defence secretary Ianin Duncan Smith
Duncan Smith is set to run
The fact that she declared she was not prepared to serve in any new shadow cabinet came as a huge surprise to most of her colleagues and was the clearest possible signal that she has finally given up any hope of leading the Tories

Old fashioned

Her repeated references to the fact that she was not "politically correct" but "old fashioned" were also a sign that her ambition now is to be the party's conscience.

In a particularly scathing part of her speech, she demanded the new leader be "honest, plain speaking and spin free".

She denied that referred specifically to Mr Portillo but her previous comments that he was surrounded by backbiters meant many believed she was targeting him.

She has also refused to be drawn into attacking Mr Portillo's homosexual past or conversion from right-winger to centrist, but few doubt she harbours serious concerns about those issues.

What now seems certain is that whoever else enters the contest the Tory leadership race has all the potential to turn into a bloodbath.

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