Politics - John Kampfner on Kenneth Clarke, the Tories’ hope

Ken Clarke is grinning broadly, knowing that he is in a perfect position to replace IDS

Ken Clarke's swagger and Cheshire Cat smile are more pronounced than they have been for a long time. The former chancellor, beaten for the leadership twice in the past five years, is the main beneficiary of the Conservative Party's mother of implosions.

Forces on the modernising wing are coalescing around him. They are also persuading some on the right to transfer over in spite of his past record on Europe. While there was no co-ordinated plot against Iain Duncan Smith before he invented one in his extraordinary statement on Guy Fawkes Day, there is now. It is only a matter of time before a new leadership contest is called.

The slow-burn scenario is to move against the leader after the local government elections in May. This was always going to be a difficult test for the Conservatives, as they will be defending a number of vulnerable seats won during a strong performance in 1999. But many Tory MPs I have spoken to in the fraught past few days believe it will happen before.

Whereas, two weeks ago, opponents of IDS were talking more in hope than expectation of getting the 25 signatures required to trigger a confidence vote, now even supporters of the leader believe the rebels could achieve that number at a point of their choosing. And when it comes, they do not believe a simple majority would be enough for the boss.

The events on and leading up to 5 November were truly a bonfire of the Tory vanities. At every step, the people around IDS made grave tactical errors. Two weeks ago, John Bercow, a diminutive and effervescent member of the shadow cabinet, told IDS in front of his colleagues that he couldn't support the party's hard line on opposing the extension of adoption rights to non-married gay and straight couples. IDS asked him to reconsider. Bercow did, but last weekend told his boss he was going. Bercow tried to choreograph his departure in a manner that would cause the leadership as little grief as possible. He took the old-fashioned route, an early-morning statement to the Press Association, rather than declaring it with a fanfare in a newspaper interview or on the radio.

Senior Tories urged IDS to draw a line. A bizarre deal was struck on the day of the adoption vote which allowed shadow cabinet members unhappy with the policy to abstain by finding sudden and important engagements away from Westminster. In addition to the eight rebels, some 35 Conservative MPs - including a third of the shadow cabinet and representing a fifth of the parliamentary party - abstained.

This was a defeat of IDS's own creation. I'm told that even the chief whip, David Maclean, suggested it would be better to allow MPs to vote with their consciences, as Labour and the Liberal Democrats did. Another to express his misgivings in private was Oliver Letwin, the shadow home secretary. Even though his advice was not heeded, Letwin rallied round IDS, and was part of the leader's group of confidants who agreed on the plan to take on the rebels.

What finally blew it for IDS was Michael Portillo's speech during the debate in the Commons, in which he quoted back the leader's conference speech calling on the party to modernise its social attitudes. Goaded on by several members of the shadow cabinet, among them Michael Howard and Liam Fox, IDS was persuaded to emulate John Major's infamous "put up or shut up" challenge in June 1995. Each had his own motives for encouraging IDS to issue his challenge, none more so than David Davis, the former party chairman demoted in the summer in another of IDS's tactical own goals. Several Tory MPs believe Davis did so because he wanted matters to come to a head.

Under the rules amended under William Hague, once a confidence vote is defeated, the parliamentary party must choose two candidates to put to the 300,000 constituency members in the country. It is they who have the final say - and this is the cause of so much of the trouble. Hague committed the cardinal error of democratising the party before reforming it. If MPs had had their way last time, Clarke would be leader. The blue rinses opted instead for IDS - hence Davis's confidence. But he won't have the right-wing to himself. Fox may also declare that he is a candidate.

Having rejected reformist candidates in 1997 and 2002, the party might - just might - this time get the hang of what it takes to become electable. That, at least, is the hope of the modernising tendency. So who will be their standard-bearer? Portillo is unlikely to benefit from the tawdry goings-on. One former supporter of his told me he wouldn't back him again. "This will bury Michael. The manner of his intervention during the debate was distasteful. You can't swank around in the Chamber like that and think you can get away with it. We might not think much of IDS, but there's a limit to the amount he can be humiliated."

The Portillistas' plea of not guilty to the charge of plotting is correct - on one level. Their modernising think-tank, C-Change, led by Francis Maude, has been playing a constructive role in trying to drag the party towards a more modern agenda. They have not been installing phone lines. And yet the problem is Portillo's record. He blew it under John Major. He blew it at the last leadership election. Now, even when he is not plotting, people think he is. As one Tory MP put it to me: "Just by walking through the corridors Michael causes trouble."

Cue Clarke. Written off after 1997, he has spent much of the past five years in blissful seclusion, travelling the world to flog cigarettes to impoverished people, while returning to Westminster as and when Tory crises unfold. He has done this with considerable charm, managing not to alienate the floating Tory MP in a way that Portillo has done, managing to stay staunchly pro-euro without making an issue of it, and managing to sound modern without looking it.

Clarke doesn't have to do anything now. He can bide his time and wait for the crisis to unfold. He doesn't need the leadership - in the current circumstances, that is his strength. After Portillo's Commons speech, Clarke made a point of going up to him to congratulate him. The two could quite comfortably work together, in spite of their differences on Europe.

At 62, Clarke could be seen only as an interim leader. Such is the state of the party that all factions acknowledge the best they can do next time around is to do what they failed to do last time - make serious erosions into the Labour majority. Save for a government calamity, opposition for the Conservatives is all but guaranteed until around 2010.

Clarke's age won't necessarily count against him with voters, but he's unlikely to want to hang around that long. Even surviving a few years as Tory leader is a feat in itself at the moment. So, if it's not Portillo, who is the longer-term prospect? Theresa May is possible. She didn't do herself harm with her kitten-heeled "nasties" speech at the conference, and yet she is implicated in the tactical disasters since. Letwin has ruled himself out, but we know what that means. Some money is heading towards Damian Green, a former journalist who is now shadow education secretary. His like could only prevail, though, if the modernisers eventually won the day.

For veteran political hacks, the scenes in the members' lobby in the Commons brought back memories of the mid-1990s. In John Major's final years, we would hang on the every word of any old Tory backbencher, checking how many would rebel on a particular vote on a particular night. The animosities were laid bare for all to see. Tony Blair's business managers learnt from that and ordered Labour MPs not to stop in the lobby to talk.

Labour MPs have spent much of the past week, mouths open, watching in astonishment. One stopped aghast as a supporter of IDS was telling me in a corridor, his voice deliberately raised: "We're fucked whatever we do. When we talk of modernisation, how about a political party run like a business, where people do what the boss tells them? If they hadn't rebelled on this one, they would have gone for something else. They won't stop these . . . " I think he was about to say "bastards" but remembered the historical connotations.

Some on the Labour benches aren't so amused. The absence of any credible parliamentary opposition allows Blair to do whatever he wants and to brush off even the slightest murmurs from within his own ranks. IDS's statement came on the day the government was pushing through its highly contentious legislation on asylum and immigration. Some 42 Labour MPs rebelled - five times the number of Tories on the far more arcane question of adoption rights. Hardly anyone noticed. No wonder the other person with a big smile that evening was the government's chief whip, Hilary Armstrong.