Horse-trading among Conservative MPs continued in earnest last night after a tie in the first round of the party's leadership ballot, which threw the battle wide open.
The result, which left Michael Ancram and David Davis in joint last place with 21 votes apiece, stunned Tory MPs and pushed the untried electoral system beyond the limits of its untested rules.
With just 13 votes separating Michael Portillo, Iain Duncan Smith and Kenneth Clarke, the result confounded the expectations of all five leadership camps. Mr Portillo emerged in front with 49 votes, but Mr Duncan Smith was close behind on 39, and Mr Clarke won 36.
David Willetts, the Conservatives' work and pensions spokesman and a Portillo supporter, said: "This has more twists and turns than a Jeffrey Archer novel." Westminster was alive with feverish speculation after Sir Michael Spicer, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, delivered the results to a closed meeting of MPs in Committee Room 14 just after 5pm yesterday.
MPs were coming to terms with a result not catered for in the rules, which were hastily drawn up by William Hague after the party's crushing election defeat in 1997.
The Byzantine system in which Conservative MPs have to narrow the field of five candidates to two before a vote by party members was designed to increase democracy in the party while protecting the leader from the type of challenge that toppled Margaret Thatcher in 1990.
The frenzied buzz of speculation in the corridors of Westminster centred on the possible mathematical permutations as support shifts between the frontrunners. Supporters of the three leading candidates urged Mr Ancram and Mr Davis to withdraw.
Crucial to the contest is how MPs might change their votes, amid rumours of tactical voting and frantic reassessments of support. The five camps were busy playing a game of spin and counter-spin, attempting to talk up their chances of winning extra support in tomorrow's second ballot.
Round the corner in Smith Square, Mr Ancram stood on his doorstep to announce that he was considering what to do next, but within minutes supporters were letting it be known that he would stand in the repeat ballot. Moments later Mr Davis appeared on television to confirm that he would not be standing down.
Supporters of Mr Portillo insisted that the broad base of his campaign would pick up votes from across the party, while Mr Portillo himself acknowledged that some supporters had voted tactically.
Mr Duncan Smith's supporters were delighted, claiming that the support had been better than expected, while Mr Clarke's aides said Mr Portillo had underperformed.
The worst scenario for Mr Portillo in the next rounds would be if Mr Ancram's supporters transferred their votes to Mr Clarke, and Mr Davis's switched to Mr Duncan Smith.
The Davis camp, however, insisted it would pick up support from Mr Ancram and Mr Clarke. There were signs that Mr Ancram's support would break down, amid rumours vigorously denied that he had picked up some tactical votes from Portillo supporters in the first ballot. Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Home Secretary, appeared to be swinging towards backing Mr Clarke. There were indications that she might support him if Mr Ancram decided to drop out.
Under the new timetable, the first round will be conducted again tomorrow, the second on Tuesday, with the final round expected two days later if no candidates withdraw. The announcement of a winner is still expected on 12 September.
Last night, the reaction was unclear from the Tory rank and file, the people who will have the final say in the Conservative leadership race. The ballot system is designed to allow MPs to present a clear choice to the party faithful. Ironically the series of elimination rounds, to whittle down the candidates to a final two, were drawn up precisely to avoid yesterday's draw.Reuse content