David Cameron's X Factor-style contest to select a Tory candidate for Mayor of London was in disarray yesterday, after the best-known contender pulled out of the race at the last minute.
The radio DJ Nick Ferrari's decision to withdraw leaves the party without a confirmed "big name" candidate, 24 hours before applications for the job are due to close. Ferrari, the 3/1 favourite, quit the contest following a meeting with his employers, LBC. He said broadcasting regulations would have forced him to censor his daily phone-in show, in order to avoid accusations of political bias.
"Standing for election would compromise the entire content of my radio programme," said Ferrari. "I'd either have to hold back on saying what I think, or invite other parties on air each time I discuss political issues. Both would cripple the show."
Ferrari's exit leaves Mr Cameron under pressure from senior MPs to postpone the forthcoming selection process, in which all Londoners will be eligible to vote for their preferred Tory candidate via telephone or text message. Although several well-known political figures - including Lord Coe, Michael Portillo, and Lord Stevens - have been asked to throw their hat into the ring, none are likely to stand.
Of the five confirmed candidates that remain, the best known is Nick Boles, a close ally of Mr Cameron who runs the modernising Tory think-tank Policy Exchange.
Despite reports that headhunters were sounding out showbusiness figures for the poll - suggested "names" included Jeremy Clarkson, Andrew Neil, Anne Robinson and Frederick Forsyth - the list includes four virtual unknowns: Warwick Lightfoot, Victoria Borwick, Richard Barnes, and James Cleverly. The turnout will fuel criticism of Mr Cameron's selection procedures. His "A-list" of approved candidates for general election seats has already attracted derision from right-wingers within the party.
Senior Tories yesterday described the scheduling of the primary, more than two years before the 2008 election, as "crazy," since the successful candidate will be forced to take at least 18 months off work.
"It's a disaster," said one former minister. "They haven't attracted anybody with a profile, and given the time frame, that's hardly surprising. Ken Livingstone will murder any of the current lot.
"The race should be delayed by at least a year. We are looking for a Giuliani or a Bloomberg. The US presidential primaries don't happen until three months before the election, and neither should these."
Ferrari is now considering standing as an independent, which would allow him to remain at LBC until next autumn. "Cameron has basically held this primary election a year too early. I have been on the phone, trying to get it postponed, but they won't budge."
The decision to hold the primary - the first in UK political history - was seen as a bold move when it was announced in June. However, experts remain unconvinced by the decision to allow Liberal Democrat and Labour supporters to take part.
"Primaries are a good idea, but ones like this, that allow anybody to take part, are a nonsense," said Bob Worcester, founder of the polling firm MORI.
"If you have a well-organised opposition it is fairly easy for them to rig the poll so that the weakest candidate wins. If you like, you can end up with the Donald Duck candidate."
Under the current plans, the Tories will hold a press conference on Friday morning at which the number of applicants for the London mayoral job will be announced. Candidates will then go through a vetting process by a panel of senior MPs and party officials. The top six - if as many as six candidates apply - will then be publicly announced in advance of the primary campaign.
A series of hustings are scheduled for September and October. The vote, to be conducted by Electoral Reform Services in November, will be open to anyone on London's electoral roll.
Meanwhile, Stephen Norris, Tory candidate for the past two mayoral elections, will not rule out standing a third time, in the event that the primary is delayed.
Conservative contenders for mayor
Nick Boles 40
Director of the centrist think-tank, Policy Exchange. Failed by 420 votes to regain Hove for the Tories at the last election. Clear frontrunner and moderniserOliver Letwin this week called him "absolutely admirable". He gave a rather lukewarm confirmation of his candidacy, saying: "By the end of Sept-ember, I will know whether I have the broad base of support that our mayoral candidate will need."
Ladbrokes' odds on becoming Tory candidate: 3/1
Richard Barnes 58
London Assembly member and former deputy chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority.
His candidacy was endorsed this week by the former Met commissioner, Lord Stevens. Mr Barnes rose to prominence recently as chair of the London Assembly's inquiry into the July 7 bombings. He also speaks several languages.
James Cleverly 36
Father of two, works in the media and has held numerous Tory advisory roles. Fought
Lewisham East at the last general election and was also the unsuccessful Tory candidate to be mayor of Lewisham. Served in the Territorial Army for the past 15 years, rising to the rank of major. He says: "I will not be drawn into a war of soundbites." His priorities are tackling crime and social exclusion.
Victoria Borwick 50
Mother of four, businesswoman and Kensington and Chelsea councillor. Core policies include zero tolerance on crime, job cuts at City Hall and scrapping the congestion charge.
Her campaign statement modestly proclaims: "Great cities need great leaders."
The list of supporters on her website currently has just two names.
Warwick Lightfoot 49
Grew up in a single-parent family, educated at a comprehensive. He worked for leading financial institutions as an economist
and held top advisory jobs at the Treasury and Department of Employment during the Thatcher-Major years. Mr Lightfoot holds a seat on Kensington and Chelsea council. His priority is crime.