Davis, the dark horse with a mountain to climb

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David Davis admitted he was the "dark horse" as he entered the Tory leadership race yesterday. But he displayed the unabashed self-confidence of a runner who believes he can come up on the rails and win.

Some Tory MPs believe Mr Davis will barely get out of the starting gate. Yet his slick launch yesterday showed that he has thought long and hard about his pitch: his press conference was complete with purple and lime green logo and a slogan ­ "modern Conservatives" ­ even though he deplored "sloganising" and "spin." It was a deliberate echo of New Labour, even though he half-denied it.

The 52-year-old MP for Haltemprice and Howden is a right-winger but no Thatcherite clone. He possesses an individualistic streak which could yet appeal to people in all sections of his party and was careful to claim the mantle of One Nation Conservatism yesterday.

In a party often seen as intolerant of minority groups, he played up the fact that he was the son of a single mother who grew up in a council house in south London. From there he made it to the London Business School, Harvard University and in a 15-year business career as a trouble-shooter and director of Tate & Lyle. For good measure, he was also an SAS reservist.

There will be doubts about his lack of political experience. Although he was Minister for Europe under John Major, he never made it to the Cabinet ­ and let his frustration show. "He never underestimated his own abilities," one ministerial colleague recalled.

His refusal to join William Hague's shadow Cabinet may now be an advantage; he is the only declared candidate untained by the party's catastrophic general election defeat. Instead, he carved out a high-profile niche as the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, and now intends to use that experience to put forward "radical solutions" for the problems in public services.

Promising he would create "a modern, bold and dynamic party," Mr Davis said: "The Government has utterly failed to meet its promises on health, education and law and order. But the Conservatives have had little to offer as an alternative. We need a fudamental policy review, with an open debate involving informed opinion inside and outside the party."

Last night, Ladbrokes slashed his odds to 5-1, only just behind Iain Duncan Smith on 4-1 with Michael Portillo out in front on 1-3 on and Kenneth Clarke fourth on 8-1.

"There may well be an element of 'David who?' ­ for both party members and the general public ­ but within the parliamentary Tory party Davis has real form", said a Ladbrokes spokesman, Sean Boyce.

Perhaps it was fitting that Mr Davis's bid to revive the ailing Tory party was launched at the Royal College of Pathologists. Mr Davis may be a high-risk option but is convinced his party may take it. "When I used to climb mountains, I never thought about falling off," he said. "I am not thinking about losing."