Michael Portillo's campaign to become Tory leader is under renewed pressure after his two rivals, Iain Duncan Smith and Kenneth Clarke, closed the gap in the re-run first round of the contest.
Mr Portillo, the early front-runner to succeed William Hague, won the votes of 50 MPs, only one more than he managed in Tuesday's ballot. Some supporters feared the shadow Chancellor had failed to achieve the momentum he needed.
Mr Duncan Smith won 42 votes, three more than in the first ballot, while Mr Clarke won 39, also up three. Michael Ancram, the former Tory chairman, was eliminated from the race after coming last with 17 votes. He was only one vote behind David Davis.
The first round had to be held again because the two men tied for last place. Mr Davis rejected pressure to withdraw from the race last night but is likely to be eliminated when the 166 Tory MPs vote again. He is then expected to back Mr Duncan Smith. An intense battle for the votes of the 35 MPs who supported Mr Ancram and Mr Davis yesterday broke out immediately after the result was announced.
A very close finish between Mr Portillo, Mr Duncan Smith and Mr Clarke is in prospect in the crucial third round. This will decide the final two who go into a ballot of party members, with the result due on 12 September. For a place in the run-off, a candidate needs the votes of 56 MPs.
Tory MPs believe Mr Duncan Smith, who has performed more strongly than many expected, will qualify next Thursday, making the real battleground between Mr Portillo and Mr Clarke. Some MPs fear a "nightmare scenario" in which Mr Clarke comes third but finishes only a few votes behind the candidate in second place. There would then be strong demands for him to go into the decisive members' ballot, although that is not allowed under existing rules.
The complicated system may also produce "tactical voting" by backers of the three main candidates. Some Duncan Smith supporters may vote for Mr Portillo because they believe Mr Duncan Smith would beat him in the members' ballot, but might lose to Mr Clarke, who is popular with the grass roots.
There was speculation at Westminster that Mr Ancram might throw his support behind Mr Duncan Smith as the best way of scuppering Mr Portillo. After being knocked out in yesterday's vote, Mr Ancram declined to say who he would support. He said he had "no regrets" about standing.
The three main contenders put their best gloss on last night's result. Despite the downbeat mood in his camp, Mr Portillo insisted his performance was "very satisfactory" after what he called a "concerted campaign" to disrupt his campaign by misrepresentation of his views on issues such as drugs and Section 28.
Mr Clarke said the contest was "wide open" and predicted he would win a place in the run-off. In a speech to members of Mr Portillo's Kensington and Chelsea Tory association last night, Mr Clarke praised Mr Portillo but said he was "more liberal than I am on one or two subjects". He added that they both rejected a "retreat into the bunker of traditional right-wing attitudes and causes".
Mr Duncan Smith said he was "very pleased" at yesterday's result, adding: "The race this time round was rather like a phoney war because we had to see who was going to get eliminated at the bottom end." He was confident of picking up substantial support from some of Mr Ancram's backers.
Despite the drop in his support, Mr Davis, the self-proclaimed "dark horse", said he would remain in the race because of pressure from grassroots activists to carry on. He insisted he could still survive the next round.
Last night William Hill made Mr Portillo even-money favourite and put Mr Duncan Smith on 7-4, Mr Clarke on 5-2 and Mr Davis on 33-1.Reuse content