Tories relish their night of the long glasses

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The passion fruit canapes were soggy at John Redwood's party, said one MP dismissively last night, as he prepared to move on to the rival champagne reception for Peter Lilley.

The Pimms was also watered down, according to some outraged Conservatives who went to the Redwood party in Dining Room A at the House of Commons.

Perhaps that was just as well. It was going to be a long night.

The floating voters had five parties in succession, to sample the drinks and nibbles - and to taste the opinions of each of the candidates standing in today's election for a Tory leader - and they needed a clear head.

After cream tea with John Redwood and his wife, Gail, MPs sauntered across Parliament Square to the St Stephen's Constitutional club for Mr Lilley's party, where they were welcomed with glasses of the house champagne, laid on at pounds 22.50 a bottle, with smoked salmon nibbles and the chance to hear from the former social security secretary his views on the euro. "My opinion is for rent and my vote is for sale," joked Peter Bottomley, whose wife, Virginia, was already at the Lilley party. Elizabeth Buchanan, Lady Thatcher's personal assistant, caused a stir when she arrived carrying a briefcase, with Lilley supporters wondering whether she had a message from the former leader.

Lady Thatcher's former political adviser, Tory MP John Whittingdale, another Lilley supporter, said: "I think most people have made up their minds, and Conservative MPs are not going to be swayed by a glass of champagne."

But those touring the parties included Michael Fabricant who said: "I am undecided and I might vote for someone different in the second round. I am sticking to the orange juice as I have three more parties."

William Hague, the young pretender, held his party in the traditional Tory stronghold of the Carlton Club in Pall Mall. Nick St Aubyn, the new MP for Guildford, was also touring the parties and as he stepped into the Carlton for champagne and canapes in the coffee room with Mr Hague, one of Mr Hague's supporters said: "He is not undecided - he has been in the Lilley camp all along."

Michael Howard was holding court with a champagne party at the Westminster home of Jonathan Aitken, the former minister, while Kenneth Clarke, keeping up his blokeish image, was entertaining any Tory MP who wished to turn up at the Royal Institute of Engineers.

But the missing ingredient last night night was the spice that would have been provided by Michael Portillo, who lost his seat at the election. Someone had hired three actors, dressed as Mexicans, in sombreros and flared trousers, to picket the Lilley party with a placard declaring: "Portillo 4 el Presidente."

Tory MPs may have looked bemused, but if they had been given the chance, el Presidente Portillo would have had a walkover today.