The party's chairman, Francis Maude, insisted that the Blackpool conference would not turn into a divisive battle between candidates because none would be nominated until after the event, when Michael Howard will formally resign. He said it would focus on the party's future direction rather than personalities. But some Tories fear the annual gathering will descend into infighting and make the party look as though it is "navel-gazing" instead of addressing the issues facing the country. One Tory MP said: " The line-up of candidates fills me with gloom. It's becoming a farce." John Strafford, the chairman of the grassroots Campaign for Conservative Democracy, said: "What an appalling beauty parade! Everyone will be saying the Tories are talking to themselves again."
The conference agenda, unveiled yesterday, will give a platform to Kenneth Clarke, a former chancellor, even though he is not a member of the Shadow Cabinet. Mr Clarke, who is likely to enter the contest, will speak in his capacity as one of Mr Howard's "wise men". William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith, former leaders, will also address the conference but John Major does not wish to. Other potential candidates will get the chance to make a shorter-than-usual, 15-minute platform speech. They include David Davis, David Cameron, Sir Malcolm Rikfind, Liam Fox, David Willetts, Andrew Lansley and Theresa May.
Mr Davis, the shadow Home Secretary who is on the centre right, is the front-runner and the "man to beat", Tory MPs say. His closest rivals are David Cameron, the shadow Education Secretary, and Mr Clarke, a moderniser. If he runs, Mr Clarke could scupper Mr Cameron's plan to emerge as the main challenger to Mr Davis.
Some MPs believe Liam Fox, the shadow Foreign Secretary, could eat into Mr Davis's support. In a speech yesterday, he sought to broaden his appeal by calling for a "renaissance in citizenship". He said: "Each of us will need to ask ourselves,'How can we best heal our broken society?'"
Mr Maude said: "The Conservative Party is in the middle of an incredibly important and healthy debate. Our party conference is a great opportunity to give this vital debate the largest possible platform ... Conference will also be a chance to showcase Conservatism in action, looking at best practice and identifying routes to success. We will show the British people that we understand the realities of life in Britain today."
Ms May, the Tories' spokesman on the family, warned that the party was " in complete denial" after MPs voted to remove the power of ordinary members to vote to elect the leader. Writing in The Spectator magazine, she said: "What is it about some MPs? Are they born thinking they know best, or does it just come with the title? Why do so many of them seem to think that they're the only ones with the answers?"
CV: 38-year-old shadow Education Secretary; former Tory policy chief.
Image: Smooth Old Etonian; young moderniser.
USP (Unique selling point): His youth.
Soundbite: "People aren't interested in the future of the Conservative Party - they want to know what we'll do for Britain."
Friends say: "A good communicator". Critics say: "Too young, too posh."
CV: 65-year-old former chancellor, home secretary, education secretary and health secretary.
Image: Good bloke in touch with the real world.
USP: Can land punches on Blair and Brown.
Soundbite: "The only job I want is Prime Minister."
Friends say: "Everyone knows he's best candidate."
Critics say: Too old at next election; has not carved out new policy agenda.
CV: 56-year-old shadow Home Secretary; former whip and Europe minister. Image: Tough ex-SAS reservist.
USP: Untypical Tory life story: raised on council estate by single mother.
Soundbite: "I'm a control freak for the individual."
Friends say: "The strong man who can drag us back from the wilderness."
Critics say: "A divisive figure, not a team player."
CV: 43-year-old shadow Foreign Secretary; former party co-chairman; former foreign office minister.
Image: Bouncy former GP.
USP: Right wing but not David Davis.
Soundbite: "Smart politicians do not move to the centre - they move the centre to them."
Friends say: "Good media performer who would woo younger voters."
Critics say: "Lacks depth."
CV: 48-year-old shadow Health Secretary; former head of research.
Image: Moderniser who wants to rename Tories "the Reform Party".
USP: Will woo female vote
Soundbite: "We have an opportunity to change the culture and the attitude of the Conservative Party."
Friends say: "Would provide fresh start we need."
Critics say: "Not enough oomph or X-factor."
CV: 48-year-old spokeswoman on the family; former party chairman.
Image: Plain-speaking moderniser who once said Tories were seen as the " nasty party".
USP: The only woman in the race.
Soundbite: "We need to do more than simply change the leader."
Friends say: "Voters would see we'd changed."
Critics say: "No Maggie."
SIR MALCOM RIFKIND
CV: 59-year-old former foreign secretary and defence secretary.
Image: Smooth-talking Scottish lawyer.
USP: Safe choice.
Soundbite: "Winning back centre ground is a necessity for the Tory party."
Friends say: "Has the clout and experience needed to take on Gordon Brown."
Critics say: "We don't need another sixtysomething man in a suit."
CV: 49-year-old shadow Trade and Industry Secretary ; former work and pensions spokesman.
Image: Two brains.
USP: The ultimate policy wonk could overhaul party.
Soundbite: "We have to engage with problems of people who haven't had the same advantages as us."
Friends say: "Two brains are better than one."
Critics say: "Lacks the charisma to be front man."
Prospects: 3/10Reuse content