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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 October 2005, 16:31 GMT 17:31 UK
Is it all over for Ken Clarke?
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

We've heard it before - but is this finally the end of the Commons road for Ken Clarke?

Ken Clarke
Clarke may be waving goodbye
After failing for the third time to gain the leadership of his party, the former chancellor must be considering his future.

Political history is littered with "big beasts" seen by their contemporaries as leaders-in-waiting, but who never made it.

Rab Butler, Dennis Healey and Michael Heseltine come immediately to mind from recent history. Kenneth Clarke must now, surely, be added to that list.

He has tried and failed three times to convince his party he is the man to lead them - enough, you might think, to get the message.

But will he now choose to leave parliament altogether, for a guaranteed seat in the Lords, will he "do a Ted Heath", as he has privately suggested in the past, and remain on the benches he loves so much, or will he even swallow some pride and take a job in a David Cameron cabinet, should there be one.

Top job

The last option still seems the least likely but, whatever he decides, he will be able to look back on a career that has so far seen him become one of the most experienced, successful and recognisable of Tory politicians.

Perhaps his greatest achievements came as John Major's chancellor, creating the economic conditions that he and many others claim Gordon Brown reaped the benefit of.

So why did he never make it to the top job? In a word, Europe.

Kenneth Clarke
Mr Clarke has lost Conservative leadership races twice before
Mr Clarke is an ardent Euroenthusiast and has even shared platforms with Tony Blair and other political "enemies" to press the case for Britain's place at the heart of the EU.

That was a controversial view during his heyday under Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

Since then, public and Conservative Party opinion has moved further against the EU, leaving Mr Clarke as an almost lone voice amongst senior Tories.

It all came to a head under John Major's premiership when the Tories were ravaged by internal feuding over Europe - with Mr Clarke leading the pro group - and, partly as a result, crashed to defeat in 1997.

Tried again

Amid continuing bitterness over the issue, an unapologetic Mr Clarke swiftly threw his hat into the ring to replace Mr Major and even forged a pact with Eurosceptic John Redwood in an attempt to win over the right wing. It failed and William Hague won the day.

Four years later, during which his critics claim he virtually vanished from the political frontline, he tried again. But the party grassroots rejected him - the same group he now believes would have backed him, given the chance.

But despite his attempts to play down the Europe issue, it still hung over him. As did the impression amongst many that he was a divisive force.

His arguments that British entry into the euro and the European constitution were off the agenda for a couple of parliaments at least, and his suggestion Labour was desperate not to revive the issue did not wash with many.

For a start, there was the feeling that other EU countries were likely to revive it and that as leader, or even prime minister, he would then revert to type.

But if Europe was the single biggest issue that kept him out of the top job, by the time of this contest there were other factors.

His age, the fact that he appears to hark back to those Major days the party is eager to move away from, and even his laid back style have all been suggested as reasons Tory MPs did not back him.

And it now seems certain there will be no fourth attempt.

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