WHEN the next general election is held in Britain Labour will have been in power for at least ten years. That is quite long enough for any party to stay in office even if there has been a change of prime minister. Governments become arrogant and complacent if they are around for too long, as we saw in the 1990s. Therefore it is very much in Britain's interest that the Conservative Party should have at least an even chance of winning the next election. As matters stood until a week ago they did not have that chance but with Kenneth Clarke's decision to stand for the leadership matters have changed substantially. A couple of months ago in this newspaper I argued the case for Mr Clarke which is, essentially, that he is the only prominent Conservative with the political heft to see off the devious Mr Blair or the bulldozing Mr Brown. The arguments against him, his association with British American Tobacco and his pro-European views, are strong but not so strong as to outweigh his evident qualities. It is good news, therefore, that two opinion polls taken last weekend both showed support for Mr Clarke as Conservative leader among the general public at just over 40 per cent with the rest nowhere. We must now wait for the first poll confined to Conservatives to see whether they have the same enthusiasm for the only winner they've got or whether their preference is for a further five years in the political wilderness with David Davis or David Cameron. It is by no means a foregone conclusion that Conservative MPs at Westminster and party members in the constituencies will get it right this time but in the national interest it is very much to be hoped that they will.

In his campaign launch speech last week Mr Clarke showed his political courage by criticising the Prime Minister strongly over Iraq when he could have saved that issue for later; his judgement was immediately validated by the two polls I have already mentioned. Unfortunately, however, it seems that a decision about how the next leader will be chosen may drag on into 2006. Britain needs a tough and principled leader of the Opposition before then.