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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 October 2005, 17:17 GMT 18:17 UK
A big beast past his prime?
Analysis
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News Website in Blackpool

Kenneth Clarke
Ken Clarke says he will say what he thinks
He claims he is the Tories' biggest beast and he seems to believe his time as king of the jungle has finally come.

Former Chancellor Ken Clarke may even have come dangerously close to condescension when he told his audience they had kept him waiting long enough for the top job.

"We are searching for a leader who will be seen by the public as a prime minister in waiting. Well, Oh boy, have you kept me waiting," he told them.

And this was certainly the speech of a man who, as he previously declared himself, does not suffer from stress, or, it seems, huge amounts of self-doubt.

He may not have adopted the carefully-rehearsed, intimate, platform-prowling style of either David Cameron or Malcolm Rifkind, the other contenders to have made their pitch so far this week.

Indeed, his decision to speak from a formal lectern and from a prepared speech was real, old-time conference.

Relaxed

But not for an instant did he appear anything other than entirely at home.

This contest is still far too volatile to call just yet

Relaxed, in command and, it has to be said, self-confident.

There was no false modesty as he claimed credit for creating the sound economy that Gordon Brown had inherited and, by following his predecessor's rules and with a lot of luck, had kept on track - until now.

He said the Tories needed to choose "an even bigger beast" than either Tony Blair or Gordon Brown to push Labour out of office.

And he seemed to suggest it must be glaringly obvious to everyone of any sense in the hall who that beast was.

Bluntness

Many already believe just that, and his speech may well have swelled that number.

It was certainly the most rumbustuous of the three so far delivered.

It was classic Clarke, playing on his personal image and making a virtue of his bluntness.

"I will lead this party unspun," he told them, pledging to say what he thinks and do what he says.

It is a directness that many believe is missing in politics at the moment, and that undoubtedly gives Mr Clarke an edge.

But he is still facing stiff competition.

Volatile

Just a few hours previously, David Cameron had set out his stall with an intense speech focussing on his youth and modernity - almost the antithesis of Ken Clarke.

While Mr Clarke concentrated on traditional Tory values and economic competence, Mr Cameron called for the Tories to fundamentally change.

But, while many in the hall clearly warmed to Mr Cameron, it was Mr Clarke who seemed to create the biggest buzz among party representatives.

This contest is still far too volatile to call just yet.




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