Tories say leadership ballot offers 'no choice'

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Grassroots Tories said yesterday that the Tory leadership contest was a "stitch-up" as each of the candidates made a last-minute pitch for support in the House of Commons.

John Strafford, chairman of the Campaign for Conservative Party Democracy, said the party's 300,000 members were being denied a real choice because only two contenders would appear on the final postal ballot.

His comments came as a firm of bookmakers closed its book on the contest after a rash of heavy bets were placed on the right-winger Iain Duncan Smith. Mr Duncan Smith is expected to come second in the ballot tonight, behind Michael Portillo. Kenneth Clarke is likely to come third, David Davis fourth and Michael Ancram fifth.

Mr Clarke is expected to be knocked out of the race next Tuesday on the third ballot, but he could receive a lifeline from Sir Michael Spicer, the 1922 Committee chairman.

Although party rules only cater for two candidates in a postal ballot, it is understood that Sir Michael will allow three candidates to go through if there is a dead heat for second place.

Mr Strafford, one of the party's most vociferous activists, launched a scathing attack on the process for the leadership contest. Party members wanted to vote for candidates of their own choice, whether Mr Clarke, still hugely popular in the grass roots, or Ann Widdecombe, he said. "This is the biggest stitch-up since the Bayeaux Tapestry. This is the old-style Tory party. It's what ruined the reforms of William Hague."

All of the candidates appeared in a "beauty contest" in front of their fellow MPs in the Commons, with Mr Clarke reportedly winning most cheers and laughs. He was questioned about his age and his pro-euro stance, while Mr Ancram failed to impress colleagues by speaking from notes. Mr Davis said 26-year-old advisers should no longer make policy. MPs and the wider party needed to be involved in the process instead.

Coral decided to shut the book on Mr Hague's successor just hours before the first knockout ballot of the contest. There has been a rush to back the shadow Defence Secretary in recent days that has seen his price come in from 10-1 a few weeks ago to just 7-2, said a Coral spokesman. When Coral suspended betting it had Mr Portillo at 4-6, Mr Clarke at 7-4, Mr Duncan Smith at 7-2 and both Mr Ancram and Mr Davis at 33-1.

The shadow Chancellor later received a pledge of support from David Cameron, MP for Witney. However, the Huntingdon MP Jonathan Djanogly became the 29th to declare for Mr Duncan Smith.

Latest estimates of the number of votes for each candidate put Mr Portillo out in front on 53 votes, Mr Duncan Smith on 41, Mr Clarke on 36, Mr Davis on 19 and Mr Ancram on 15. If the figures are correct, Mr Ancram will be eliminated from the contest tonight and the other four will go to the second round on Thursday. It is expected Mr Davis will then drop out and many of his backers go to Mr Duncan Smith instead of Mr Clarke.