Hunt still ahead in Tory race as Archer surges

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DAVID HUNT, Secretary of State for Employment, remains favourite to take over as Tory party chairman despite a surge of rank-and-file support for the novelist and former MP Jeffrey Archer.

The energetic Lord Archer emerged the clear popular choice in a Sunday Express survey of 100 constituency party chairmen, but he has already been ruled out because a figure of Cabinet rank is a pre-requisite at this stage of the current Parliament.

The possibility of a Government job in next month's reshuffle has been mooted in return for long and unstinting service, but only at junior ministerial level - Parliamentary Under-Secretary at National Heritage is one suggestion.

The most likely scenario is that the new chairman will be a Cabinet member by virtue of becoming Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the post presently held by William Waldegrave in his capacity as head of the Office of Public Service and Science.

Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, had been tipped as an obvious choice to revive the flagging spirits of the party and drum up appeal among the wider public. But he has made plain his unwillingness to be moved - leaving the Prime Minister in the difficult position of having to call his bluff. There were few signs yesterday that John Major would press the issue further.

The other possibilities are Gillian Shephard, Minister of Agriculture, Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, and Tony Newton, Leader of the House of Commons. But Mr Hunt is believed to have the edge.

Mr Heseltine's attempt to box in the Prime Minister provoked the ire of Alan Clark, the former defence minister, who said on BBC's Breakfast with Frost yesterday: 'This is the first time before a reshuffle that someone has announced what they do or do not intend to do. Plainly he should go there.'