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Ex-Treasury chief Clarke seeks to inspire British Conservatives

Launches bid for leadership role

LONDON -- A familiar face from Britain's political past is betting he is the man to reinvigorate the long-beleaguered Conservative Party and wrest power from Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Kenneth Clarke, the garrulous former Treasury chief, is seeking the Tory leadership. He is one of the party's most popular politicians, but age -- he is 65 -- and his left-leaning views may work against him.

''I am getting frustrated by the fact that we have been out of office for eight years," Clarke said Wednesday. ''I desperately want to lead the Conservative Party to make quicker progress back into power."

Clarke would probably challenge David Davis, the Conservatives' spokesman on law and order issues, in the race to succeed outgoing leader Michael Howard. David Cameron, 38, the education spokesman and another probable contender, is seen as an up-and-coming modernizer.

Malcolm Rifkind, a former foreign secretary, said he would also be a candidate.

Clarke has sought the party leadership unsuccessfully twice before, in 1997 and 2001. His warm, relaxed manner and fondness for jazz and cigars have endeared him to many Britons, but he is less popular within his own party, many of whose faithful see him as too liberal.

Whoever succeeds Howard when he steps down at the end of the year will probably lead the Tories into the next election, expected in 2009. Blair has said he will not seek another term, so his expected successor, Treasury chief Gordon Brown, could head the Labor Party by then.

Clarke argues that the Tories -- who have lost the last three elections, two of them in crushing landslides -- have tilted too far to the right and must shift to the center to broaden their appeal.

Howard is widely credited with boosting the party's fortunes in his year and a half as leader.

The Tories lost May's vote to Labor, but by a far smaller margin than the last two times, and Conservative stalwarts hope this year's election will prove a stepping stone to victory in 2009. They believe Labor's majority of 65 seats could be easier to overcome than its earlier gaping lead of more than 160 seats.

Clarke's backers say they believe he has the name recognition and experience to return the once-dominant Conservatives to power. Although he is in the party's liberal wing, he allied himself closely with the staunchly conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who appointed him to a succession of junior posts and eventually made him health secretary.

Under Prime Minister John Major, Clarke was home secretary, then promoted to chancellor, Britain's top economic post.

He said his opposition to the Iraq war puts him in a strong position to criticize Blair in an area where the government is vulnerable. Under Howard's predecessor, Iain Duncan Smith, the Tories supported the invasion.

But Clarke may lean too far to the left for his party's liking.

His longstanding support for closer British integration into the European Union rankles many Tories, who have been deeply divided over the issue for years. Clarke said economic problems facing countries that adopted the euro mean Britain will not sign up to the single currency any time soon.

However, Madsen Pirie, president of the Adam Smith Institute, a conservative think tank, said Clarke's support for the EU was too central to his world view to discount. ''He carries too much baggage," Pirie said. ''He's out of tune with the modern Conservative Party with his enthusiastic [pro-EU] view."

Some have also hinted that Clarke is too old to become prime minister in four years. Howard, who is a year younger, cited his own age in deciding to step down.

Clarke's lucrative job as deputy chairman of British American Tobacco could also hurt him, with many voters now wary of the tobacco industry. He said he would quit the post if chosen as leader.

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