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The 1997 Conservative Leadership Contest

John Major bows out...
...And Kenneth Clarke steps in
"I have been a member of Parliament for 18 years. I have been a member of the Government for 14 years, a member of the Cabinet for 10 years and Prime Minister since 1990. When the curtain falls it is time to get off the stage and that is what I propose to do." - John Major, May 2nd 1997

The day after Labour's landslide election victory John Major told the crowds outside Downing Street that he was to stand down as leader of the Conservative Party. He had been Tory leader and Prime Minister since November 1990. His decision was widely expected given the scale of the Conservatives' defeat, although many thought that he would delay his announcement until the party had had time to re-group.

Kenneth Clarke, the former Chancellor, wasted no time in announcing his candidacy. At lunchtime on the day after the election, he told the BBC's World At One Programme: "I certainly intend to be a candidate in the leadership election." The former Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, was admitted to Hospital on Saturday May 3rd suffering from heart problems. Central Office announced that he would not be standing for the leadership. The former Social Security Secretary, right-winger Peter Lilley, appeared on On The Record on the following Sunday to announce his decision to stand.

Michael Howard: Off to a bad start
Tuesday May 6th saw two more Euro-sceptic heavyweights join the race. John Redwood, who had challenged John Major for the leadership in 1995, launched his campaign with an article in The Times. The former Home Secretary, Michael Howard announced his candidacy at an afternoon news conference. He had originally persuaded William Hague to be his running mate, but Hague pulled out of the deal at the last minute and announced that he would run in his own right.

Gillian Shephard, who many thought might stand, came out in support of Peter Lilley. Stephen Dorrell, the former Health Secretary, announced that he would also stand. These were the six candidates who contested the first ballot on June 10th.

Michael Howard's challenge had not got off to the best of starts after William Hague's decision to desert him - worse was to follow. The former Prisons Minister, Ann Widdecombe, went public with a series of criticisms of her former boss over the way he had handled the dismissal of the former Head of the Prison Sevice, Derek Lewis.

RealAudioMichael Howard talks about his dispute with Ann Widdecombe

Ms Widdecombe did little for Mr Howard's public image when she said that he had "something of the night" in his personality. She announced her intention to make a Commons statement about the affair. It seemed that she was determined to ensure that his leadership bid failed. Ms Widdecombe attacked Howard in the press and in the Commons chamber. Mr Howard refuted her allegations that some of his statements about the affair were "not sustainable", but it seemed that significant damage had been done to his campaign.

On June 4 Stephen Dorrell decided to pull out of the contest and lend his support to the other left-wing challenger, Kenneth Clarke. Dorrell was an outsider and never looked like securing more than seven or eight votes so his decision was widely expected. He may well have been humiliated had he stood in the first ballot.

Round One

Kenneth Clarke: Won the first round
The bookies made William Hague, who had run a slick, media-friendly campaign, their favourite. Clarke was next, with Lilley and Howard not far behind. Dorrell was considered a long shot and Redwood was regarded as the outsider of the party.

No candidate was expected to poll the 83 votes required to win outright in the first ballot and this was reflected in the result. Kenneth Clarke came top with 49 votes, Hague was next with 41, Redwood surprised the pundits by coming third with 27. Peter Lilley polled 24 votes, ahead of Michael Howard who came last with 23.

John Redwood was delighted with his performance and immediately urged Howard and Lilley to join his team. Both men refused and instead offered their support to the new favourite William Hague.

Round Two

Clarke and Hague
Clarke and Hague left to fight it out
The race now had to go to a second ballot on Tuesday June 17. Inevitably perhaps, the three remaining candidates - William Hague, Kenneth Clarke, and John Redwood - focused their attention on Europe. The single currency then became the issue of the contest. Kenneth Clarke said he could not see Britain joining a single currency in the near future but refused to say "never" as Redwood had. William Hague also took a Euro-sceptic line: "I would fight the next general election on the platform that we would not abolish the pound, that we would oppose further political integration in Europe," he said.

Both his rivals accused Hague of changing his stance and of, at just 36, being too young for the job. Hague insisted that he would not respond to personal criticisms. He went in to the second round as the favourite but again was not expected to poll well enough to win the contest at the second round stage. The contest was now billed as a head-to-head between Clarke and Hague. Clarke had made it clear by now that, if defeated, he would not serve in a shadow cabinet led by either rival.

In the event, Clarke came out on top for a second time with 64 votes to Hague's 62. John Redwood polled 38 votes and was therefore eliminated.

Round Three

Clarke and Redwood
An "Unholy Alliance"?
Redwood declares for Clarke
The final round, on June 19, was billed as "too close to call" and some even thought that Hague and Clarke might tie. Their campaign teams were pressing for every last vote, and it was Clarke who seemed to have pulled off the ultimate coup. To the disbelief of party members and commentators alike, the hard line Euro-sceptic John Redwood decided to team up with Euro-enthusiast Kenneth Clarke. It was widely assumed that Mr Redwood would be rewarded with the job of Shadow Chancellor if Clarke was elected.

RealAudioBaroness Thatcher declares for Hague

If a reasonable number of Redwood followers had followed their man's lead then Clarke would have gone close to winning. One high-profile Conservative who had so far remained quiet decided it was time for action. Baroness Thatcher could not bear the thought of Kenneth Clarke winning the contest and declared her support for William Hague. The eventual result showed that John Redwood's endorsement of Kenneth Clarke was miscalculated. Redwood supporters obviously did not approve and Hague won, by what was in these terms, a large margin of 22 votes.

Kenneth Clarke immediately announced that he would not sit in the Hague Shadow Cabinet and that he would continue his career from the backbenches. The rest of Hague's rivals were all appointed to the Shadow Cabinet. Michael Howard and Peter Lilley were well rewarded for their support, becoming Shadow Foreign Secretary and Shadow Chancellor respectively. Stephen Dorrell became Shadow Education and Employment Secretary and John Redwood was appointed Shadow President of the Board of Trade. Lord (Cecil) Parkinson was re-appointed to the Party Chairmanship, a position he had held under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

RealAudioHague becomes youngest Tory leader for 200 years

William Jefferson Hague became the youngest Tory leader since William Pitt became Prime Minister in 1783 at the age of 25. If Hague were elected Prime Minister in 2002, he would become the second youngest ever prime minister. Tony Blair, at 44, is currently the second youngest PM.

Diana, Princess of Wales, 1961-1997

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