David Davis won crucial backing from Tory modernisers yesterday as he moved into a clear lead in the race to succeed Michael Howard. Although he has yet to declare his candidacy formally, support is rapidly growing for the shadow Home Secretary.
After George Osborne ruled out a leadership bid, attention is focusing on his modernising ally David Cameron, the shadow Education Secretary, as a "stop Davis" candidate.
In a previous leadership bid in 2001, Mr Davis was hampered by his apparent unpopularity with some Tory MPs and his perceived hostility to calls to modernise the party's appeal to voters.
But Julie Kirkbride, who backed first Michael Portillo and then Kenneth Clarke in the 2001 leadership contest, gave Mr Davis her enthusiastic support yesterday. She said: "He will create what we call down here in Westminster the sort of narrative of the Conservative Party. David has had a big rise from his humble origins. David came from a single-parent family when a great deal more discrimination applied to single families. He climbed up from that position to be a successful businessmen and to now be in a senior position in the party."
Mr Davis was winning backing from a ''broad range of Conservative MPs coming from traditionally different wings [of the party]", she told Radio 4's The World at One. She said: "He has a huge amount of support already in the parliamentary party."
Ian Taylor, a long-time supporter of Mr Clarke on the Tory left, said he would also consider voting for him.
"In my view, David Davis will have to reach out to the one-nation Conservative vote and beyond to the several percentage points that we need to gain that are not currently voting for us. It is possible for a candidate who is deemed to be more on the right wing of the Tory party to do that as well as a candidate on the left."
Mr Cameron, 38, who was promoted last week, could be the preferred candidate of Mr Howard's allies and those MPs who believe they need a younger, modernising leader. Mr Cameron sidestepped questions yesterday over whether he would stand in the leadership contest expected in the autumn. He said: ''I don't really believe in ruling things out. There is no leadership election now. It is not going to happen for months.''
MPs believe the prospect is growing of a showdown between Mr Davis and Mr Cameron. But other potential candidates who could portray themselves as modernisers, including Andrew Lansley and Tim Yeo, have yet to declare their intentions. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary, could also stand and Kenneth Clarke has refused to rule himself out.
In an article for The Independent, the former Shadow Cabinet minister John Bercow gives strong backing for Mr Clarke as ''easily the best'' of the possible candidates. Mr Bercow writes: ''Polls have consistently shown Ken Clarke is the most popular Tory in the country. I have lost count of the number of people on the doorsteps who have told me they would vote Conservative if Ken were leader. It is therefore good news that he is contemplating what would be his third bid for the Conservative leadership. Many MPs would surely welcome the chance to vote for the most impressive beast in the Tory jungle."
Mr Howard is expected to reveal his proposals for changing the rules on electing the leader next week and his planned timetable for the contest. His suggestions will be studied carefully by the Davis camp, who suspect the Tory leader may attempt to tilt any new system against their man.
Eric Forth, an ally of Mr Davis, said: "There is a frustration starting to build that we are going to face, frankly, until the end of the year, with a lame-duck leader, a lame-duck shadow team, and nobody listening much to what we are saying."