Boris Johnson has emerged as the favoured choice of Conservatives to succeed David Cameron as leader of the party, according to a survey for i.
The Mayor of London, who is enjoying a high profile during the Oly- mpics, is favoured by 32 per cent of party members, according to the poll of 1,419 activists conducted by the ConservativeHome website. His nearest rivals are William Hague, the Foreign Secretary and a former party leader, who is backed by 24 per cent, and Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, on 19 per cent.
George Osborne, who was widely seen as Mr Johnson's main rival in the future leadership stakes, is supported by a derisory 2 per cent after a difficult four months since his trouble-hit Budget.
Tory leaders are elected by party members in a ballot after the contenders are whittled down to a shortlist of two by the party's MPs.
The survey also revealed lukewarm support for Mr Cameron among the Conservative grassroots, which are traditionally loyal to the leader. A minority (49 per cent) of members surveyed want the Prime Minister to lead them into the next general election. The figures suggest little appetite among activists for Mr Cameron's modernising project and a desire to return to a more traditional Tory agenda.
According to the poll, Tory members are pessimistic about the party's chances of retaining power at the next election. A majority (53 per cent) believe Labour is most likely to be in office while 47 per cent think the Tories will be.
A Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition is seen as the most likely outcome (22 per cent), followed by an overall Labour or Conservative majority (both 20 per cent), a minority Tory government (19 per cent), a minority Labour government (11 per cent) and a second coalition (8 per cent).
There appears to be little love for the present Coalition with the Liberal Democrats. A tiny 1 per cent of Tory members wants it to continue beyond the next election and 20 per cent want it to end as soon as possible, ideally this year, while 9 per cent say it should end in 2013 and 10 per cent in 2014.
Boris Johnson has pledged to complete his four-year mayoral term until 2016, but he is expected to land a safe Tory seat on the eve of the 2015 general election and serve as an MP in his final year as Mayor.