Lies, damned lies, and MPs' pledges of support

Campaign managers for David Davis, Kenneth Clarke, David Cameron and Liam Fox were busy counting their votes last night, still unsure how the first ballot today will unfold.

There is going to be a big lie factor," said one campaign organiser. "If you can tell me how many are lying, I can tell you how many votes we have got."

As soon as the speeches in the ornate, oak-panelled room were over, the backstabbing and behind-the-hand briefing started.

"Ken was the weakest of the speakers," claimed a Fox supporter. Meanwhile, a Davis backer said: "Nobody bombed, but Fox just hasn't got what it takes."

However, allegations of past drug-taking by members of his team were not raised by Tory MPs with Mr Cameron inside committee room 14. Asked if there were questions about drugs, Mr Cameron said: 'No - there was no erring and straying... We were very much on the issues that matter."

The body language told its own story. Dr Fox, a normally ebullient character, looked anxious as he discussed his campaign figures with his allies in a corner of the members' lobby at the House of Commons.

Mr Clarke had earlier stood on the steps into committee room 14 with a carefree air. "Am I supposed to be in here?" he asked pointing to the closed door. Sir Nicholas Winterton, a senior officer of the 1922 Committee, said: "You are wanted inside."

Mr Clarke's detractors said his carefree attitude was one of his problems. "I don't think he wants it badly enough," said one senior Tory MP after the former chancellor had spoken. However, many MPs said there was plenty of desk-banging inside the committee room when Mr Clarke finished.

A Cameron supporter said: "I hate to say this, but Ken was the best of the lot. He is a star, and a big hitter."

Mr Cameron's only wobble came when he was discussing how to improve the process used to select Conservative parliamentary candidates, suggesting one appearance in front of a constituency selection meeting was not sufficient to judge a candidate's quality. "Nobody's career should be decided by one speech," he said.

The comment provoked laughter, given the way Mr Cameron's campaign has taken off in the past fortnight on the strength of one speech to the annual party conference. Witnesses said Mr Cameron reddened and momentarily faltered when he saw the implications of what he had just said.

Mr Davis also left the MPs laughing after telling them that, as leader, he would place the highest priority on staying in touch with the backbenches.

"You are the electors, the supporters and, in the final analysis, the executioners," he told the MPs.

The shadow Home Secretary told journalists the experience had been "quite fun". He said: "I got my points across and I didn't forget my words. That is good enough, isn't it?"

Emerging from the meeting, Mr Clarke said: "Europe only came up two or three times. The Conservative Party is improving."

Mr Clarke told MPs that, while government spending had to be cut, there had to be realism about what could be achieved and this had to be presented in a way that did not frighten voters.

Dr Fox told reporters he had delivered the same message he had delivered throughout his campaign.

"We are a political party, not a PR organisation. Parties require good PR, but politics first," he said.

"If you want to change, you have to say first what you want to change to."

His remarks were seen as a swipe at the front-runner, Mr Cameron.

He also appeared to have the outgoing leader Michael Howard in his sights when he said a "close circle of advisers" should not be left to set policy on their own.

Tory MPs will be able to cast their votes in a secret ballot and many could privately be prepared to switch their votes if they detect a bandwagon for a winner. David Davis's supporters were anxiously hoping that their man will keep the 66 votes that have been publicly pledged to him, but they privately admitted that they could be hit by desertions.

"We have to get at least 60," said one member of the Davis camp. "If we don't, we could be in trouble."

Their nervousness was increased by the discovery that the chairman of the 1922 Committee, Sir Michael Spicer, who is running the election, has been approached by numerous MPs who wanted to ensure their votes will be secret.