The Tory leadership contest was thrown wide open last night after two candidates tied for last place and the front-runner, Michael Portillo, polled fewer votes than expected.
Mr Portillo topped the ballot with 49 votes, but Iain Duncan Smith and Kenneth Clarke were close behind on 39 and 36 respectively. Michael Ancram, a former party chairman, and the "dark horse" candidate David Davis won 21 votes each from the 166 MPs in the party, allowing both to escape automatic elimination from the contest. Sir Michael Spicer, chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, said the candidates tied for fourth place would be eliminated if there was again a dead heat in tomorrow's re-run vote.
The results triggered a hectic round of arm-twisting by all the rival camps, with Mr Ancram and Mr Davis resisting intense pressure to step aside. The former Tory party chairmen Lord Fowler and Lord Parkinson both urged the two trailing candidates to pull out. "It would be the sensible thing to do," Lord Parkinson said.
Crucially, though, a higher vote than expected for the bottom two raised the possibility that Mr Portillo could himself fail to make the final run-off ballot of the party's 300,000 members. If Mr Duncan Smith and Mr Clarke manage to attract most of the votes of those who drop out, both men could force the shadow Chancellor into third place. One MP said: "If you haven't voted for Portillo on the first round, you are unlikely to vote for him later. But support for Clarke and Duncan Smith can only grow."
The shadow Chancellor told Sky News he was confident of remaining in the lead in further rounds. "It's exactly in line with our predictions and our canvassing. I'm ahead and I'm grateful for that. I have always been convinced I can win but I have also always known this is a choice for the Conservative Party," Mr Portillo said. He also told Channel 4 News that he believed some of his supporters had voted tactically.
Mr Clarke said he had received the number of votes he expected in the first round and would see his support increase as others dropped out. "The 42 votes seem likely to move, with a high proportion coming to me. I remain confident of coming in the top two," he said.
Mr Ancram declared that he would stand in tomorrow's ballot. He said: "We have seen a result today that shows that no candidate has the overwhelming support of the majority of our colleagues in Parliament. Indeed, no candidate has achieved even a third of the support of our colleagues in Parliament."
Mr Davis made clear he would carry on after pressure from grassroots Tories to stay in the race. "We are looking at our numbers and our vote is solid. We are going to carry on. We expect to come through on Thursday," he said.
David Curry, one of Mr Clarke's supporters, seized on the fact that Mr Portillo had fallen short of the 53 votes projected by his supporters. "I do think that he has seriously underperformed," he said.
Mr Duncan Smith said he was confident ahead of the next round of voting. "We are very happy with the 39 votes. We only had 29 pledges and being in second place is exceptionally good," he said. "I will go out and appeal to those MPs who have said they may switch over."
Many of Mr Ancram's supporters are expected to back Mr Clarke in later rounds, while most of Mr Davis's backers are expected to flock to Mr Duncan Smith.
The first indications of a wobble in Mr Ancram's camp came when Ann Widdecombe declared she would vote for Mr Clarke if the former party chairman dropped out. But later she insisted she was firmly behind the Ancram campaign. She told the BBC's Newsnight: "At heart I am an Ancram supporter. I am his proposer and I want him to go on."
The bookmaker William Hill kept Mr Portillo favourite at 8-11, while Mr Duncan Smith was installed at 7-4. Mr Clarke was 3-1, with both Mr Ancram and Mr Davis 33-1 outsiders.
* Elizabeth Filkin, the parliamentary commissioner for standards, is to examine claims that Mr Portillo accepted more than £20,000 for private briefings and speeches while in John Major's Cabinet.
It was reported that Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, had complained to Ms Filkin about the allegations in yesterday's Guardian newspaper.Reuse content