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Friday, 7 September, 2001, 14:34 GMT 15:34 UK
Tories are unleadable - Kennedy
Charles Kennedy
Mr Kennedy branded the Tory campaign as divisive
It does not matter who wins the Conservative leadership poll as the party is "incapable" of being led, Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy has suggested as the race draws to a close.

Branding the summer-long campaign as "bitter" and "divisive", Mr Kennedy who this week has been touring the seats his party gained at the general election, suggested the Tory contest had provided an opportunity to redraw the political map.

This demonstrates the success of opening up the choice of leader to the wishes of the party's members for the first time

David Prior

The two Tory leadership hopefuls, Ken Clarke and Iain Duncan Smith, face their final regional hustings on Friday, although they will both appear at this weekend's conference of Conservative Future, the party's youth wing.

It has emerged too that Lady Thatcher will stay away from next month's Conservative Party conference to give the new leader the chance to "make his mark".

Winner immaterial

Mr Kennedy told BBC Radio 4's Today programme it was "immaterial" which of the two contenders topped the poll on Wednesday.

He said: "It's not so much now an issue of who is the next leader of the Conservative Party, the question if whether the Conservative Party is capable, or almost psychologically ready, to be led."

Ken Clarke
Clarke says he is "delighted" with the turnout figures
Mr Kennedy suggested his party could be a refuge for any disillusioned Conservatives.

The Lib Dem leader said he saw the election as a crucial turning point for the next five years.

"Once we see the outcome of the Conservative leadership campaign next week, that is going to be a moment of opportunity which I think will define politics for the rest of this Parliament," he said.

In a separate interview with the epolitix website Mr Kennedy said that a victory for Mr Clarke could damage the euro campaign as he would have to be constantly "trimming his views" in order to placate Tory Eurosceptics.

The Lib Dem leader has described his party as the "effective opposition" and both leadership candidates have stressed the need to tackle the Lib Dem threat.

Mr Clarke says he is best placed to win back voters from both the Lib Dems and Labour while Mr Duncan Smith has pledged to set up a special unit in Conservative Central Office to attack the Lib Dems.

'High turnout'

Both men are due to appear separately before party members at the hustings meeting in Harrogate on Friday.

With nearly three-quarters of the 318,000 Tory members' votes already cast, the exercise is unlikely to change the outcome.

Iain Duncan Smith
Mr Duncan Smith will join Mr Clarke in Harrogate
Conservative Central Office announced on Thursday that a total of 235,558 votes have been cast - a turnout of 72% and an increase of 54,000 since last Friday.

The new leader will have less than a month to prepare for this year's Conservative Party conference, which begins in Blackpool on 8 October.

Thatcher to stay away

Lady Thatcher's office said on Friday she had decided not to attend the event "because the new leader deserves a chance to make his mark".

The announcement comes a day after shadow environment secretary Archie Norman said too many Tories were in the "thrall" of the former prime minister as he urged the party to look forward.

During the leadership campaign, Ken Clarke accused the baroness, who is backing Mr Duncan Smith, of trying to "hijack" recent conferences after she predicted he would steer the party to disaster.

There have been reports too that Mr Duncan Smith had asked her not to attend the conference if he becomes leader so he can take centre stage and focus on the party's future.

Charles Kennedy, Liberal Democrat leader
"The question is, is the Conservative party capable of being led?"

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