Cameron now favourite to lead Tories as more MPs defect from Davis

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Indy Politics

Mr Davis tried to shore- up support amid speculation his lacklustre speech at the Tory conference could provoke a rash of defections - and even deprive him of a place on the shortlist of two to be chosen by MPs, which will go to a ballot of the party's 300,000 members. As the Blackpool conference ended, William Hill installed Mr Cameron as the favourite - the first time Mr Davis has not been the front-runner since the race began.

The bookmakers cut Mr Cameron's odds from 10/1 at the start of the conference to 10/11 favourite at its close. Mr Davis, who started the week as 1/3 odds-on favourite, is now 5/4 second favourite, while Kenneth Clarke has slipped to 9/2, with Liam Fox at 12/1 and Sir Malcolm Rifkind 66/1.

The Cameron camp claimed the support of 23 MPs, up seven since his conference speech on Tuesday - still well short of Mr Davis' 66 names, but ahead of Mr Clarke's estimated 18 MPs.

James Gray, MP for Wiltshire North, said: "Having seen all the leadership candidates at Blackpool, I have come to the conclusion that David Cameron best represents the aspirations of both the Conservative Party and, more importantly, the nation. I can certainly see him as a future prime minister."

Jeremy Hunt, MP for South West Surrey, said: "I know some people say David [Cameron] doesn't have enough experience, but what counts is that he has the energy, vision and ability to connect with exactly the type of people we need to win power."

Alan Duncan, the shadow Transport Secretary, confirmed a report in The Independent yesterday that he was switching from Mr Davis to Mr Cameron.

In another setback for Mr Davis, Mr Fox, his challenger from the right, also claimed to be picking up support at his expense. Mark Harper, MP for the Forest of Dean and a "soft Davis" supporter, will declare today that he is switching to Mr Fox, who hopes to win the backing of the Cornerstone group of right-wing MPs next week.

Allies of Mr Clarke said he would profit from Mr Davis's wobble. They said the former chancellor had had a "great week" and that his warm response from the Tory grassroots had shown Europe was no longer the dominant issue for them. They believe Mr Davis's supporters will switch to Mr Clarke rather than the inexperienced Mr Cameron.

Sir Malcolm , who denied he would pull out of the race, made a withering assessment of Mr Davis's conference speech. He said: "He must be very, very worried because he was speaking to a party of Conservative enthusiasts who wanted to will him to succeed. If he was unable to achieve that, one has to ask how would he deal with Gordon Brown over the next four years."

Some MPs who have backed Mr Davis admitted privately they were becoming jittery about his prospects. One said: "I am sticking with him at the moment. But if he buggers it up again, I will jump."

Yesterday, Mr Davis brushed aside criticism and insisted he was still the front-runner and that none of the 66 MPs who have publicly backed him had changed their minds. "It doesn't mean the basic position is going to change," he said. "I will have enough votes to go through to the final round irrespective. One of the marks or tests of leadership, frankly, is going through the odd difficult day."

Mr Davis sought to protect his right flank from attack by Mr Fox when he addressed the Thatcherite Conservative Way Forward group in Blackpool. He paid homage to Margaret Thatcher's legacy and said the tax cuts offered by the Tories at the May general election were too timid.

He called for some powers to be repatriated from Brussels and defended Baroness Thatcher's remark that there was "no such thing as society," claiming she had been misinterpreted.

How was it for them?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind

The former foreign secretary has done himself no harm this week, despite seeing his leadership hopes evaporate. Sir Malcolm ended eight years in the wilderness outside Parliament with the conference's most impressive oratory. He tore up his prepared text to make a barnstorming speech which was enthusiastically received by the rank and file and will ensure his return to the Tory top table. But Sir Malcolm has not got the weight of support among MPs. Yesterday he insisted he would remain in the race and pick up support flaking from the David Davis camp. One ally said: "The Rifkind lifeboat is alongside the Davis ship." Could be a kingmaker, but not a king.

Presentation: 7

Content: 5

Star quality: 3

Total: (out of 30) 15

David Davis

In a succession of recent Tory leadership campaigns, the front-runner has been defeated. The nightmare for the shadow Home Secretary, who appeared to have the keys to Tory HQ in his pocket just a fortnight ago, is that history could be about to repeat itself. His conference address was workmanlike when it needed to display a touch of magic dust. His appearances on the fringe have been worse. Mr Davis, though, remains the Tory to beat. More than 60 MPs are publicly committed to his cause, although a few may peel off, and his soft-right outlook chimes with many - perhaps a majority - of the Tory faithful. The question for his campaign team is whether his torrid week, culminating in a grim set of headlines, kick-starts them out of any complacency or is the beginning of the end. They will be hitting the phones over the weekend when they might have been sipping champagne.

Presentation: 5

Content: 7

Star quality: 6

Total (out of 30) 18

David Cameron

The young pretender to the Tory crown can leave Blackpool satisfied with his week's work, having established himself as the candidate gaining the most momentum from the Conservatives' week by the seaside. His backers may have made things up as they went along, but Cameron's daily bulletins pushed under hotel room doors at 5am, his energetic presence on the fringe and party circuit and his well-received appearance on the conference floor have created the aura of a candidate going places. He has attracted a large campaign team staffed by enthusiastic recruitsquite happy to deliver leaflets all night. Senior figures like Oliver Letwin have done a sterling selling job behind the scenes, while the six MPs converted to the Cameron cause and glowing reviews in the press have given the shadow Education Secretary a crucial bounce in the days before MPs start their ballots to whittle down the candidates to a shortlist of two.

Presentation: 9

Content: 7

Star quality: 8

Total (out of 30) 24

Kenneth Clarke

The big beast returned this week, proving the old magic was still there. He received the most spontaneously enthusiastic reception on the conference floor, telling the best jokes and displaying the oratorical style that could wound Blair and Brown on the floor of the Commons. With his blokeish bonhomie, he sent out the message that he was the only candidate who could reach out to the millions of lapsed Tory voters. But he has taken pains to avoid the subject of Europe - still a faultline within the party - and the fact that he is old enough to claim a free bus pass worries activists desperate to give the party a youthful image. Despite the conference tour de force, there is little sign he is picking a groundswell of support from Tory MPs. His campaign has appeared a little homespun compared with the Cameron and Davis battallions, and has not given the vital impression of a bandwagon gathering pace.

Presentation: 7

Content: 8

Star quality: 9

Total (out of 30) 24

Dr Liam Fox

Dr Fox's background as former party chairman was seen as his trump card. All those hours helping candidates who are now new MPs was thought to be a factor in wooing the new intake, a quarter of the parliamentary party. The shadow Foreign Secretary won plaudits for a speech which pressed many populist buttons. He spoke passionately about mental health and domestic violence and has impressed on the fringe. But his campaign has been nowhere in the student-style canvassing, while his three new MP backers (plus another convert yesterday) failed to get the impact of the six converts to David Cameron's cause. His shift to the Eurosceptic right has left many wondering whether he can regain the centre ground.

Presentation: 6

Content: 6

Star quality: 5

Total (out of 30) 17