Davis stands aside, but believes that his time is still to come

David Davis still believes that he is the Tory leader-in-waiting, despite failing to secure a "dream ticket" deal with Michael Howard.

The shadow Deputy Prime Minister's race to be the first to publicly back Mr Howard disguised the failure of his grand play. He will now fall back on his small but committed powerbase within the parliamentary party.

Mr Davis recently told friends: "Sure, I've got 15 or so MPs who are prepared to kill for me, but what's wrong with that?" The remark sums up the character of the man many believe is the Tories' best hope of regaining power.

His allies are convinced that his popularity among party members will see him clinch the top prize.

He impressed many of the rank and file during his last shot at the Tory leadership in 2001 although he came joint bottom among MPs.

Mr Davis, 54, is a former SAS reservist, Foreign Office minister and trouble-shooting businessman and it is easy to see how he could impress the party's 300,000 members.

The MP for Haltemprice and Howden's Thatcherite credentials are impeccable. He was one of six MPs to whom Baroness Thatcher decided to make constituency visits in the 1992 election campaign.

Perhaps fittingly for a party in need of resurrection, Mr Davis's time as a director of Tate & Lyle gave him experience of turning failing companies around.

But it is the Davis persona that most appeals to his supporters. Tall and well groomed, although he has broken his nose five times, he is every inch the Action Man that Tory blue rinses adore. Even his enemies admit that Mr Davis fills a room as soon as he enters it, often cracking jokes and telling anecdotes about his friend, the late Alan Clark.

As the son of a single mother brought up on a council estate, he has had a life that could connect him with voters.

A father of three, and grandfather of one, he believes in the virtues of family life yet says that he is not judgemental about those with alternative lifestyles.

Despite his image as a hardliner, he was referee to an openly gay Tory candidate, Iain Dale, in Norfolk. He also hired Shailesh Vara as the first Asian Tory vice-chairman and oversaw the selection of several women candidates. "I am as I do, not as I advertise," he said last month.

Mr Davis has an easy, conversational style in interviews that is essential for any party leader. "He walks and talks like a member of the human race," said one MP yesterday.

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