Michael Ancram's opponents predicted his elimination from the Tory leadership race with rumours spreading last night that he had offered to withdraw on Tuesday night.
Gossip circulated the House of Commons tearoom and bars that Mr Ancram telephoned David Davis after the pair tied for fourth place in the first ballot of Conservative MPs.
The former party chairman is alleged to have suggested that both men pull out of the race, with Mr Davis politely turning down the offer.
Had both withdrawn, the 300,000 members could have been in a position to vote on the final two candidates after today's re-run ballot.
Instead, after a hectic day of horse-trading and head-counting, MPs were left wondering how many of their colleagues would stick with the two least popular candidates. The Davis camp, with more publicly declared backers than Mr Ancram, was confident that its support would hold.
But Peter Bottomley, one of Mr Ancram's key supporters, dismissed suggestions his man would lose votes and likened him to the shock Wimbledon tennis champion, Goran Ivanisevic. "The Goran gambit is to learn from Wimbledon, where the winner had a wild card and there were various upsets and he won. Michael Ancram did far better than expected in the first round," he said.
However, allies of Michael Portillo, Iain Duncan Smith and Kenneth Clarke were claiming yesterday to have received indications from MPs who were ready to "peel away" from Mr Ancram. "They've made their point, shown their friendship and loyalty to the party chairman and to William Hague. Now they are free of any obligation," said one MP.
One Portillo supporter said: "People have voted with their heart on the first ballot, they can vote with their head in later ballots. You can basically indulge yourself on the first round. We have at least one Ancram vote definitely going for us in the next ballot."
The Duncan Smith camp, buoyed by its candidate's strong second place with 39 votes, attempted to woo more MPs but was accused by some of "heavy-handed" behaviour.
Discontent over the rules of the contest surfaced among many MPs, with Andrew Lansley, the shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, telling BBC Radio 4's The World At One that the system prevented many party members from voting for their first choice as leader.Reuse content