LONDON — Britain's Conservative Party, struggling to find its way back to power, wraps up its annual conference in the seaside resort of Blackpool today with a colorful veteran, Kenneth Clarke, and the reliable-but-gray front-runner, David Davis, vying with three other candidates to take over the party's reins.
After making only minimal inroads against the ruling Labor Party in May parliamentary elections, the party of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher has been searching for the right mix of issues and personalities to take back the initiative from Prime Minister Tony Blair and his heir apparent, treasury chief Gordon Brown.
After the defeat in May, Conservative leader Michael Howard announced that he would resign, prompting the party's slow, deliberate search for its fourth leader in eight years. A series of votes by the parliamentary delegation is supposed to whittle the field of candidates to two; the winner will be determined Dec. 7 by the 300,000 rank-and-file members.
So far, the Iraq war, which the Conservatives endorsed in 2003, has not proved to be a major issue, although Blair's government has been criticized as undermining basic liberties with some of its anti-terrorism laws.
At Blackpool, conferees heard from the five declared hopefuls, and aside from Clarke and Davis, intellectual newcomer David Cameron seemed to be making headway as a possible centrist candidate. The polished Cameron, 38, received high marks for a 20-minute speech given without notes Tuesday in which he said he would bring youth and vigor back to the party.
Clarke at 65 is regarded as too old by some party members, especially considering he would be nearly 70 by the next parliamentary election. But polls have shown that the former treasury chief, who has been in Parliament since 1970 and who headed four key ministries under Thatcher and John Major, is the candidate with the greatest support among the public.
Supporters believe Clarke's homey personality, his passion for sports, jazz and cigars, and his strong and early opposition to the war in Iraq, add to his allure for the average Briton and make him the most likely to win over independents and some Labor and Liberal Democratic voters.
Within the Conservative parliamentary delegation, however, Clarke is seen as too much of a maverick, and many have not forgotten his enthusiasm for European integration in the 1990s, which went against the party's Euro-skeptic orthodoxy.
In a rousing speech to the conference Tuesday, which ended with a two-minute standing ovation, Clarke repeatedly had the crowd laughing with his self-deprecating jokes, but he also delivered a clear message that he was the man if the party wanted to win.
The public is looking for a prime minister-in-waiting, he said, adding sotto voce, "And oh, how you have kept me waiting."
Clarke turned his fire on Blair's governing style: "They have abandoned the proper processes of Cabinet government. They have turned the great secretaries of state into lackeys of Downing Street.... They have treated Parliament with contempt."
Commentators said Davis, who has endorsements from 66 lawmakers, needed to make the speech of his life to counter Clarke, but his effort Wednesday seemed to fall short.
"Let's show that a Conservative Party is ready to lead again," Davis said in his remarks, which focused on fighting terrorism, securing Britain's borders and cracking down on crime.
"A competent speech that covered all the bases.... Not a natural tub thumper in the way that Ken Clarke is," a BBC political correspondent commented dryly. "But at the same time, he got his messages out."
Even though the next election could come as late as 2010, the post of party leader is key, because the person selected will head the opposition's new "shadow government" and lock horns weekly in Parliament with Blair -- or Brown if Blair fulfills his promise to hand over power before the next election.
Britain's oldest political party, the Conservatives have dominated the nation's political life for most of the last 200 years.
But Blair's mediagenic personality, his feat of moving his party to the center on domestic policy and eight years of prosperity under Brown's tight fiscal management have enabled Labor to dominate politics in spite of widespread disaffection with Blair's decision to join the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
Besides Clarke, Davis and Cameron, two other lawmakers are seeking the Conservative leadership: Liam Fox and former Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind. More may enter the fray.