Cameron's campaign gains speed while Clarke cuts loose

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He won the backing of four newly-elected MPs, with the promise of more to follow this weekend. The surge of support has prompted some Cameron allies to think the previously unthinkable ­ that he could win a contest that had previously looked certain to end in victory for David Davis.

The new recruits were Mark Lancaster (Milton Keynes NE), Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield), David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweedale) and Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet).

Their arrival in the Cameron camp brought his publicly declared supporters in the House of Commons to 20, but his campaign team claims to have nearly double that number of private pledges.

They believe that puts them comfortably ahead of Ken Clarke and Liam Fox in support among MPs, and in a position to ensure their man is one of two names submitted to Tory activists in December.

The Cameron team will hit the telephones over the weekend to try to bolster support. They will be targeting new MPs, Sir Malcolm Rifkind's handful of supporters and MPs considering backing Mr Clarke. They claim to have already won over one unnamed supporter of the former chancellor.

They will send each MP a DVD of a BBC2 Newsnight report concluding he was by far the candidate most favoured by floating voters, as well as extracts from his conference speech.

Mr Cameron's leadership bid, widely thought to have stalled during the summer, was revitalised last week when he won admiring headlines for his official campaign launch.

Since the conference began on Monday, his team has run a slick campaign, distributing daily leaflets trumpeting his progress.

His aides decided to limit his conference appearances to one a dayto keep his modernising message focused, but he has undergone an intensive round of television and radio appearances. In three days, his chances of victory have been cut from 9/1 to 10/3 by Ladbrokes.

One key campaign team member said: "David has shown this week the stardust quality a leader needs. A few weeks ago, we didn't think we would win ­ now it looks possible."

A campaign team party in Blackpool's Imperial Hotel was packed with hundreds of mainly young guests. Mr Cameron, his wife Samantha, and his close friend, the shadow Chancellor George Osborne, assiduously toured the room.

One MP present said: "I backed David because I thought he would be the best leader after next. Now I think he may well be the next leader of the Conservative Party."

At a fringe meeting last night, Mr Cameron acknowledged his relative youth could have its disadvantages, saying: "If you go for a young 38-year-old, there's a risk, I accept that." But he also said electing Mr Clarke could pose a risk by turning attention too much on the past, rather than the future.

Mr Cameron conceded the party had probably put too much emphasis on the issue of immigration at the last election and hinted he opposed making sweeping pledges on tax cuts.

Asked if he had ever experimented with cannabis, he replied to laughter: "Let's put it this way ­ I had a normal university experience."

Ken Clarke yesterday sought to neutralise activists' concerns about his europhile leanings, urging the party not to "jump at shadows" over Europe.

At a fringe meeting, headded: "We must restore proper cabinet government as the way decisions are made... We can set an example by operating in a more collegiate way in opposition."