One Tory MP said yesterday he was "pinned up against a wall for an hour" by David Willetts, a member of Michael Portillo's campaign team. He finally buckled and promised to vote for Mr Portillo, but he has no intention of doing so in the crucial ballot among Tory MPs this afternoon.
Allegations of threats, intimidation, skulduggery and promises of fast-track promotion to the Opposition front bench abound in the Westminster hothouse as an increasingly fraught Tory leadership contest reaches a nail-biting climax. One campaign manager, asked how his boss was persuading people to vote for him, replied: "Thumbscrews."
Of course, the candidates' teams deny such tactics and insist they are not offering frontbench posts – if only because such offers would not be credible because there would not be enough jobs to go round.
At the weekend, the remaining candidates – Iain Duncan Smith, Kenneth Clarke and Mr Portillo – were busy telephoning undecided or undeclared MPs. Back at Westminster yesterday, the three rivals were cajoling possible supporters in an endless round of one-to-one meetings, usually over tea or coffee rather than harder stuff. Some of these sessions lasted an hour – and some backbenchers even asked for a second meeting after that. Champagne and wine flowed earlier in the campaign at parties thrown for the candidates.
The gossip among Tory MPs is that the Portillo camp has been more aggressive in its lobbying than the Clarke and Duncan Smith teams – with some backbenchers accusing Francis Maude, Mr Portillo's campaign manager, of excessive arm-twisting.
One Tory MP said: "The lists of supporters drawn up by Clarke and Duncan Smith will be more accurate. The Portillistas have put people under a lot of pressure and some may have lied to them just to get them off their backs."
Backbenchers are not beyond telling lies, especially after the result is declared in Committee Room 14 shortly after 5pm today. Whatever happens, the winner will almost certainly find that more MPs tell him they had backed him than actually did. Another intriguing prospect is that MPs who have publicly backed one candidate promise another camp they are switching sides – and allow its "minders" to cast an eye over their marked ballot paper, even though the ballot is supposedly secret. This has certainly happened in previous Tory contests.
The man vulnerable to such a squeeze is Mr Portillo and the Clarke camp launched a last-minute blitz to win over possible waverers, warning that backing Mr Clarke was now the best way to stop Mr Duncan Smith. There is no doubt that the Portillo campaign had a bad weekend, as Baroness Thatcher denied a newspaper report that she was backing Mr Portillo and Amanda Platell, William Hague's spin-doctor, plunged the knife into the shadow Chancellor in her video diary on Channel 4. One Tory MP said: "The Portillo campaign has a death wish."
Yesterday was a better day for the Portillistas. Rumours swept Westminster that the erroneous "Thatcher backs Portillo" story was an elaborate plant by fans of Mr Duncan Smith designed to harm Mr Portillo. Then Mr Hague threw Mr Portillo an unexpected possible lifeline by distancing himself from Ms Platell's actions and declaring that he had the "full support and loyalty" of all his Shadow Cabinet during the general election campaign.
Last night Michael Ancram, the former Tory chairman who was eliminated from the leadership race last week, backed Mr Duncan Smith, dealing a last-minute blow to Mr Clarke, who had hoped to woo Mr Ancram.
All three camps were playing the expectations game. The Duncan Smith team, which has achieved momentum at previous stages by playing down its level of support, insisted it did not have enough names "in the bag" to ensure its man one of the two places in the final ballot of Tory party members. The aim was to prevent a last-minute seepage of support to Mr Portillo or Mr Clarke by MPs who thought Mr Duncan Smith was safely in the top two.
With today's result on a knife edge, old personal friendships and rivalries also came into play. Mr Duncan Smith, who rebelled over the Maastricht Treaty when John Major was in power, failed to win the backing of three MPs who were then government whips – Derek Conway, Andrew Mitchell and Greg Knight--who switched to Mr Clarke after originally backing David Davis.
Mr Mitchell is one of a number of Tory allies who kept in close touch with Mr Portillo after they shared the unwanted experience of losing their seats in 1997 but then found him less willing to pick up the phone once he landed Kensington and Chelsea in a by-election. "A lot of chickens are coming home to roost," one MP said.
How the support is lining upIAN DUNCAN SMITH 52
Definite: Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Ancram Richard Bacon, John Baron, Julian Brazier, Angela Browning (seconder), William Cash, Christopher Chope, David Davis, Jonathan Djanogly, Peter Duncan, Michael Fallon, Eric Forth, Mark Francois, Paul Goodman, John Hayes, Gerald Howarth, Andrew Hunter, Bernard Jenkin (proposer), Eleanor Laing, Edward Leigh, Julian Lewis, David Maclean, Patrick Mercer, Owen Paterson, Eric Pickles, John Redwood, Laurence Roberton, Andrew Rosindell, Andrew Selous, Richard Shepherd, Mark Simmonds, Desmond Swain, Peter Tapsell, Sir Teddy Taylor, Andrew Turner, Angela Watkinson, Bill Wiggin.
Possible: David Amess, Crispin Blunt, Tim Collins, James Cran, William Hague, Michael Howard, Andrew Lansley, Marion Roe, Bob Spink, Peter Viggers, David Wilshire, John Wittingdale, Ann Winterton, Nicholas WintertonMICHAEL PORTILLO 49
Definite: Michael Portillo, Peter Ainsworth, Greg Barker, John Bercow, John Butterfill, David Cameron, Stephen Dorrell (seconder) Alan Duncan, Nigel Evans, Michael Fabricant, Mark Field, Howard Flight, Adrian Flook, Liam Fox, Edward Garnier, Nick Gibb, Cheryl Gillan, Chris Grayling, Damien Green, Philip Hammond, Nick Hawkins, David Heathcoat-Amory, Mark Hoban, Robert Key, Julie Kirkbride, Oliver Letwin, David Liddington, Peter Lilley, Tim Loughton, Andrew MacKay, Francis Maude (proposer) Theresa May, Andrew Murrison, Arcie Norman, George Osborne, Richard Ottaway, Mark Prisk, Andrew Robathan, Hugh Robertson, Keith Simpson, Nicholas Soames, Richard Spring, Gary Streeter, Robert Syms, Nigel Waterson, David Willetts, John Wilkinson, Tim Yeo.
Possible: James Arbuthnot, Patrick McLoughlin,KENNETH CLARKE 35
Definite: Kenneth Clarke, Alistair Burt, James Clappison, Derek Conway, Sir Patrick Cormack, David Curry, Quentin Davis, John Greenaway (seconder) John Gummer, Oliver Heald, John Horam, Robert Jackson, Boris Johnson, Greg Knight, Humphrey Malins, John Maples, Michael Mates, Ann Mackintosh, Andrew Mitchell, James Paice, Anthony Steen, Ian Taylor, Andrew Tyrie, Robert Walter, Ann Widdecombe, Sir George Young (proposer)
Possible: Tim Boswell, Peter Bottomley, Virginia Bottomley, Sir Sydney Chapman, Sir Alan Haselhurst, Douglas Hogg, Michael Jack, Jaqui Lait, Peter Luff
Undeclared former Ancram supporters: Crispin Blunt, Tim Boswell, Tim Collins, Charles Hendry Malcolm Moss, Stephen O'Brien, Jonathan Sayeed, Peter Bottomley, John Taylor.
Undeclared former Davis supporters: Graham Brady, Simon Burns, Roger Gale, Dominic Grieve.Reuse content