David Cameron would beat Tony Blair but lose to Gordon Brown if the public could elect their prime ministers directly, according to a new poll.
The findings were a boost for the front-runner in the Tory leadership contest, who came under attack yesterday for being "superficial" and "timid". The same poll suggested that his rival, David Davis, would lose in a direct election against either Mr Blair or Mr Brown.
Yesterday, Mr Cameron and Mr Davis went head to head in hustings in Frimley, in Surrey, and Westminster, where they addressed 2,000 members of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations. Today they will have the last televised debate of the leadership campaign, which has 12 more days to go. The debate will be chaired by Sky's political editor, Adam Boulton.
According to a Yougov poll for Sky, 41 per cent of voters would choose Mr Cameron in a direct election, compared with 38 per cent for Mr Blair. But Mr Brown would win a direct Brown-Cameron contest by 43 per cent to 38. Mr Davis would lose to both.
But the Davis camp claimed comparisons between the poll and one published last month showed their man was catching up, at a time when more than 40 per cent of party members have yet to vote.
In Frimley, Mr Davis delivered a veiled attack on his rival, saying a "quick, superficial makeover" would not be enough for the Tories to win the next election. He added: "Our changes must be more lasting than the political equivalent of the cosmetic surgeon. Nip-and-tuck politics are not for us." Mr Cameron was also attacked by one of Mr Davis's most prominent supporters, the novelist Frederick Forsyth. In an article posted on Mr Davis's website, Mr Forsyth noted that after Eton College and Oxford University, Mr Cameron went to Conservative headquarters to work as a "gopher, bag-carrier and toecap-buffer". He added: "I find that an extraordinarily timid life. Unless the Tories are truly daft, they should not pick timid."
The Cameron team shrugged off the attacks. Mr Cameron, in his Westminster speech, addressed "spiritual poverty" in modern Britain. "This spiritual poverty is not in any sense limited to the economically poor. You're as likely to find it in the young advertising executive earning £50,000 a year as in her unemployed counterpart living on benefits," he said.