Davis stranded up a dead end as Tory hustings start

Mr Cameron impressed East Midlands party members in Leicester in the first of 11 regional hustings. He also had an edge over Mr Davis for punctuality, arriving 15 minutes early with four supporting MPs and the usual retinue of aides. A group of university students wearing "Win with Cameron" T-shirts also tagged along.

Mr Davis, had one MP to support him, plus one visible backer - 54-year-old Anne Bond, in a T-shirt saying "David Davis, Modern Conservative"- and was nearly 20 minutes late.

While Mr Davis grappled with Leicester's traffic jams and one-way system, some 400 party members waited in a room in the Walker Stadium, home to Leicester City football club.

"There was muttering," Daniel Ritterband, a Cameron supporter, said afterwards. "People were saying they got up on a Monday morning, why couldn't he?"

But once Mr Davis had arrived - on foot - he insouciantly blamed his tardiness on the Labour government's policies for transport, and put up a performance that won him at least one convert.

Frieda Hurst, a Conservative alderman from Charnwood, said as she came out: "I was going to vote for David Cameron, but when I saw David Davis's performance, I was impressed. He's straightforward. He's an English guy. He's in that sort of tradition."

Willen Veldhuizen, an investment analyst who chairs Leicester South constituency Tory party, found Mr Davis "very warm and charismatic". He added: "I like the way he's not ashamed to be a Conservative. David Cameron is basically trying to pretend we're not, and I don't see why. I watch him and he just reminds me of Tony Blair - and we don't want another Tony Blair."

Support like that, plus a focus group conducted for BBC Radio 4's Today programme, that came out unanimously in his favour, led Mr Davis to claim that - "though it is very, very hard to tell" - he thought he had won the first of the series of 11 regional hustings meetings. By the end of the month. the two contenders will have held head-to-head debates in front of local audiences in nine English locations, plus one each in Scotland and Wales.

But the more general view, judging by a random sample of comments from members of the audience as the meeting ended, was that Mr Cameron's charm and slick presentation had given him the edge, again, over his more experienced rival.

One sign of the growing confidence in the Cameron camp is that one member of his party started musing outside the hall about whether it would be necessary to offer David Davis a worthwhile job in the shadow administration.

It is assumed that one of the big jobs is reserved for the present Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, who is manager of the Cameron campaign. Yesterday, Mr Cameron said another is set aside for the former leader William Hague, who came out in support over the weekend. Mr Hague is still a popular figure among Tory activists, who have never blamed him personally for the scale of the defeat they suffered under his leadership four years ago.

The students from Leicester University's Conservative Future organisation were convinced everyone in the audience under 30 was behind Mr Cameron - though, to be fair, that age group make up an endangered minority in any Conservative gathering.

There were sufficiently few of them for Mr Davis to risk using the famous quotation, that anyone who is a Conservative at the age 18 has no heart, and anyone who is not a Conservative by 40 has no head. Unfortunately, he attributed this epigram - inaccurately - to Voltaire.

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