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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 August 2005, 20:01 GMT 21:01 UK
I'm not too old to lead - Clarke
Ken Clarke
The ex-chancellor is running for leader for the third time
Conservative leadership challenger Ken Clarke says he is desperate to take the party back into power.

He dismissed suggestions he was too pro-European and said it was "faintly absurd" to claim that, at 65, he was too old to replace Michael Howard.

The former chancellor told the BBC's new political editor, Nick Robinson, he was "overwhelmingly more popular" than any of his rivals.

He also said he had been a reformist politician for his entire career.

Mr Clarke spoke of "the very enjoyable times and very successful times when I was in office".

C'est Kenneth Clarke!

And he said "the idea that somehow I've just drifted through life and I've been able to carry off office for all those years without coming up with new ideas, without changing direction on things and without responding to events" was "absurd".

He was not too old for the top job, Mr Clarke added.

"For heaven's sake, if you start ruling out anybody at the age of 65, which is where I am, from serious participation in politics, you'd clear out half the world's politicians. And some of those would include some of the world's best politicians."

Third time lucky?

This is the Rushcliffe MP's third attempt to win the Tory leadership - his pro-euro views were blamed for his defeats in 1997 and 2001.

He now says his enthusiasm for UK euro membership has cooled.

Mr Clarke also set out his view of the place of the Conservative Party in modern Britain.

"The Conservative Party has got to be made to look like a credible alternative government in-waiting that is ready to go... as though it could handle competently and effectively the big issues as they come along," he said.

"I now fit the bill to do that.

"Conservatism is for running a successful economy, combining it with a sensible social conscience, making our great state public services more modern and more effective, and more consumer friendly, and it's internationalism as well and looking after Britain's place on the [world] stage."

Iraq opposition

Asked about his opposition to the UK's participation in the invasion of Iraq, he said he was not proposing to go around saying "I told you so".

Mr Clarke is due to make a speech on the subject on Thursday and he said he wanted to look at how the US-led coalition could eventually leave Iraq.

Iraq was now a "dreadful mess", he said, but withdrawing British troops too soon "would be disgraceful".

"Pulling out has got to be part of a pre-determined programme of how you improve the situation from the present dire problems."

Mr Clarke stressed his enthusiasm for the Anglo-American relationship but said he believed the Iraq invasion was just wrong.

"I am not a left-wing peacenik or anything like it. I like the US, it is God's own country in its best features.
I shall take a particular pleasure in taking on Mr Brown
Ken Clarke

"But US presidents are not right every time. I disagreed with the judgement on this particular invasion. What I am going to address is how do we progress from here?

"What do we do now to get out of this conflict with the Muslim world and the terrorist threat?"

This would have to be top of the political agenda for a few years ahead, Mr Clarke added.

Showing his appetite for a political dust-up still remains as strong as ever, he branded Tony Blair a "lightweight" and said he had made a "Horlicks of public service reform".

Mr Clarke's potential rivals include shadow cabinet ministers David Davis, David Cameron, Liam Fox, Andrew Lansley, Theresa May, Sir Malcolm Rifkind and David Willetts.




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