Iain Duncan Smith is winning the battle for the votes of the "armchair Tory members" who will decide the Conservatives' leadership election because they regard Europe as the most important issue facing the country and the party.
A survey for The Independent reveals that inactive Tory members are voting for Mr Duncan Smith even though they know little about him. They strongly oppose his rival, Kenneth Clarke, because of his pro-European views.
The findings put a big question mark over the claims by Mr Clarke's campaign that the higher-than-expected turn-out in the election will boost his prospects because he will win the support of these less active or "armchair" members.
Yesterday the Tories announced that 72 per cent of members had voted. The leadership ballot closes on Tuesday, with the result announced the following day.
The Independent interviewed two focus groups of eight typical Tory members in one of the party's heartland seats in the South of England. The nine women and seven men average age 64 were "not active in the party".
One of the most striking findings was that their decision on how to vote in the leadership contest was based on ideology, with Europe the most important factor. As one member interviewed put it: "It's a much bigger issue than the NHS."
The members were less worried about the Tories' electability and image in the eyes of the voters.
Few members in the group knew much about Mr Duncan Smith. The only two well-known facts were his army background and his rebellion against the Major government over the Maastricht Treaty, which was viewed as "positive".
Mr Duncan Smith was not thought to be a very good public speaker, with an "annoying" voice. His baldness was seen as a disadvantage.
There was general agreement that he would probably not win new voters for the party if he became leader. Surprisingly, however, hardly any members thought that was an important point.
Mr Clarke was immediately identified as "Europe man". The general expectation was that a Clarke leadership would "split the party right down the middle". .
Some felt he was so out of touch with the rest of the party on Europe that as leader he would have no choice but to change his view. But most perceived him as committed to the euro. "He'd just sell Britain down the river," one said.
Some members blamed the voters and the media for the general election result, saying: "People are stupid"; "I'm very disappointed in the electorate"; "I don't trust the voters"; and "People were brainwashed to Labour by the papers and the BBC". Most felt the right thing for the party to do to win was "educate the voters they'll see we're right in the end".
These striking views were challenged yesterday by Archie Norman, the party's Environment spokesman, who urged the Tories to "stop banging on about" Europe and instead to "turn and face the electorate".
Mr Norman, who backed Michael Portillo in the leadership contest, told the politics website ePolitix.com: "Too many in the party are still in the thrall of Margaret Thatcher."
* Baroness Thatcher announced yesterday that she had decided to stay away from next month's Tory party conference to give the new leader "a chance to make his mark".Reuse content