Conservative right-wingers mounted a series of personal attacks on Michael Portillo yesterday as the shadow Chancellor agonised over whether to stand for the Tory leadership.
They swung into action to try to prevent the clear front-runner from a smooth succession to the party's crown.
Mainstream and left-leaning Tories were begging Mr Portillo to throw his hat in the ring to stop the Eurosceptic right-wingers Ann Widdecombe or Iain Duncan Smith capturing the leadership. Mr Portillo will today meet the former chancellor Kenneth Clarke, sparking speculation that the pair could run as a joint ticket, with Francis Maude as their possible campaign manager.
Miss Widdecombe, who signalled her intention to stand, took a swipe at Mr Portillo for his decision to take a short break in Morocco immediately after the election. She told BBC1's Breakfast with Frost: "I don't think we should all go away and hide because we are afraid of being asked questions about the leadership."
Supporters of John Redwood accused Mr Portillo's allies of undermining William Hague's leadership in the two years since he returned to the Commons. The former Tory chairman Lord Tebbit also twisted the knife. He said: "Quite rightly William Hague called for tax cuts, but ... Michael Portillo was never convinced of his sums."
Friends and supporters of Mr Portillo, who was due to return to Britain with his wife, Carolyn, last night, insisted he still had not decided whether to stand and would announce his intentions within two days. All he would say yesterday was that he was enjoying his break. "I always enjoy Morocco," he said.
A Portillo ally said: "I have immense doubt whether he will go for it. He may think about what the purpose is, leading the party for eight years in opposition." The ally also feared that Mr Portillo, who revealed two years ago that he had had homosexual experiences in his younger days, would be deterred by the inevitable media spotlight.
However, most Tory MPs believe Mr Portillo's hand has been forced by William Hague's surprise decision to quit. Mr Portillo spent yesterday in close telephone contact with Mr Maude, who refused to rule out his own leadership ambitions. Allies of the pair said Mr Maude was lining up to step into the leadership race if Mr Portillo does not.
Mr Clarke was due to meet supporters today before deciding whether to back Mr Portillo or another centrist candidate. But the absence of Mr Portillo from the contest could prove irresistible for Mr Clarke.
Tory right-wingers who fear Miss Widdecombe would be an electoral liability were beginning to rally behind Mr Duncan Smith, the shadow Defence Secretary, who looks certain to stand. He told the Financial Times: "I don't know what I might do. We have plenty of time; the contest cannot even start until the end of June."
Mr Redwood will discreetly sound out his levels of support over the next fortnight. Colleagues said he believed the party should reflect on the scale of its defeat before "going helter-skelter" into a leadership contest.
The contest will be set in motion at the end of the month when the officers of the party's 1922 committee are elected. Tory MPs will choose a shortlist of two candidates to be voted on by members. The result is expected by mid-August.
* Mr Clarke is the public's favourite to become the next Tory leader, according to a Daily Telegraph poll. Thirty one per cent of a cross-party sample of voters backed Mr Clarke while 27 per cent backed Mr Portillo and 10 per cent supported Miss Widdecombe. Among Tory supporters, Mr Portillo was favoured by 34 per cent with Mr Clarke attracting 21 per cent and Miss Widdecombe 15 per cent.Reuse content