Michael Portillo will today end months of speculation by declaring his candidacy to succeed William Hague for the leadership of the Conservative Party.
The shadow Chancellor's official line last night was that he would "make my position clear" before Wednesday afternoon, but sources close to him indicated he would finally throw his hat in the ring. Mr Portillo returned from a holiday to a day of networking and planning with his inner circle.
The clear favourite with the bookmakers, his decision to stand will give him an immediate head-start on rivals such as Iain Duncan Smith, the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, Kenneth Clarke, the former Chancellor, and Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Home Secretary.
Mr Clarke, who is the public's favoured choice for the leadership according to opinion polls, said yesterday that it would be "a week or two at least" before he would decide whether to contest the job. Mr Duncan Smith also said that there was a need to avoid "unseemly haste" over the leadership, although he refused to rule out running himself.
Miss Widdecombe said at the weekend that she was "taking soundings" about running for the post, but stopped short of making her own declaration.
Mr Portillo made a brief public statement when he arrived at his home in Kensington. "We've had a wonderful holiday. It was a great opportunity to think things through. I'll be giving a statement shortly," he said. As specualation increased, a source close to Mr Portillo said: He [Mr Portillo] will be making clear his intentions in the next 48 hours".
Mr Clarke denied reports that a deal had been struck between himself and eurosceptic Mr Portillo in the race to succeed Mr Hague. He said: "I have no pact with Michael Portillo or anybody else, and I have had no negotiations about any agreements of that kind."
Mr Duncan Smith, who is likely to emerge as the main Thatcherite candidate, said: "I, like many others, will consider where we go from here. It shows a degree of unseemly haste if people suddenly say now that they know the solution to all our problems," he said.
Mr Portillo will have been boosted yesterday by several Tory MPs who argued that now was the time for a leader who would bring together the differing wings of the party and abandon Mr Hague's concentration on Europe and the euro.
Damian Green, Tory MP for Ashford, said "The issue of Europe is not number one in the public's concerns. We have a huge job to do in engaging people on a wide range of policies. That is the main task for the new leader, not dealing with the minutiae of European policy."
But another MP, Nick Gibb, said: "We can't let small disagreements on the single currency prevent people who are pro the single currency from playing a part in opposition."Reuse content