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What if ... Ken Clarke had led the Tories

The defiant Clarke turned the Tories against the Iraq war

If you ever need reminding that every vote counts, think back to Tuesday 17 July 2001, the day that reshaped our political landscape. That afternoon, behind the doors of Committee Room 14, Tory backbenchers learned that Michael Portillo had edged out Iain Duncan Smith by 54 votes to 53, and would go through to a final leadership round against Middle England's favourite jazz fan, Kenneth Clarke.

If Portillo had lost, his career in front-line politics would probably have been over. It is hard to imagine what he would have done instead: a life in television, perhaps. In the event, he spent the next two months barnstorming across the country, struggling to shrug off the insults of Lord Tebbit
and rumours about his private life. But it was no surprise when, in September, the Tory faithful gave Ken Clarke a thumping majority: in the shires, rumpled geniality beats slick modernity every time.

If Duncan Smith had been running instead of Portillo, the result might have been different. But with Clarke as leader, the Tories went from strength to strength. The public loved his cigar-smoking, suede-shoe-wearing style, and when he became the first leader of the opposition to host Have
I Got News for You
, even the media began to come round. Cheerful, outspoken and defiantly unspun, Clarke pulled level with Tony Blair in the polls - and, thanks to his friends at British American Tobacco, the Tories' ailing finances were transformed at a stroke.

It was Iraq, though, that changed everything. Clarke had been against the invasion from the outset, even appearing alongside his old mate Jacques Chirac at a dramatic press conference to plead for peace. On the Stop the War march in February 2003, he cut an entertainingly incongruous figure, at one stage nipping off with Harold Pinter for a crafty pint and a smoke. And as Tony Blair flailed about to win public support, Clarke's star soared. By the 2005 election his lead in the polls was unassailable. Even Guardian readers were said to have applauded the landslide that followed.

But perhaps the Tories should have been careful what they wished for. Once the financial crisis struck in 2007, Clarke's European affections, hitherto downplayed, reasserted themselves. To many Tories, his solution to the banking collapse - that Britain should immediately join the euro -
was anathema. Paralysed by infighting, Clarke's government fell from power in a confidence vote. It was now December 2009. A week later, with more than 100 backbenchers threatening to defect to Ukip, he resigned as Tory leader.

With a general election just three weeks away, the Tories have to pick a replacement. And the contest already has a distinctly familiar look. Portillo versus Duncan Smith: seconds out, round two.

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and author. His books include Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles and White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. He writes the What If... column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special