Tory modernisers fear that David Davis will cruise to victory in the party's leadership election because they are squabbling among themselves about who should oppose him.
At least six potential candidates on the modernising wing have emerged but there is no agreement about who would be best to challenge the shadow Home Secretary, who is on the centre right. "There is despair that we are so divided amongst ourselves," one left-wing Tory said. "It's going to be a shoo-in for Davis."
One prominent moderniser, the former minister Tim Yeo, called yesterday for urgent discussions among fellow "progressives" so they could rally behind one standard-bearer.
"We cannot go into August with David Davis as the only candidate with an organised campaign," he told The Independent. "People should have a hard-headed look at their chances and ask whether their level of support matches the level of their ambition." Asked whether he should take his own advice, Mr Yeo replied: "Yes."
Other modernisers who may enter the race include David Willetts, the shadow Trade and Industry Secretary; Andrew Lansley, the shadow Health Secretary; Alan Duncan, the shadow Transport Secretary; Kenneth Clarke, the former chancellor, and David Cameron, the shadow Education Secretary who is seen as the choice of the outgoing leader, Michael Howard.
Mr Clarke has not ruled out standing and could yet provide the heavyweight candidate the modernisers have lacked. But some allies believe he will decide not to run.
Mr Cameron, 38, could emerge as the main progressive candidate but modernisers are urging him to set out his beliefs more clearly to convince them he has a different agenda to Mr Howard. "Just because he's young, it doesn't make him a moderniser," said one left-winger.
Not all the potential candidates on the left will muster the backing of the 20 MPs they need under the party's rules. There are fears that, while they lobby MPs for support, the momentum behind Mr Davis will become unstoppable.
Mr Yeo's intervention may lead to informal talks so that the number of candidates can be whittled down. Some MPs predict there will be only "three candidates still standing" by the time Mr Howard formally triggers the contest in October - Mr Davis, Mr Cameron and a representative of the progressive wing.
Some smart money is going on Mr Willetts as the progressive candidate, although critics say he is not a "front man" and want him to back Mr Duncan or Mr Lansley. Other potential runners include Liam Fox, the shadow Foreign Secretary; Michael Ancram, the party's deputy leader; the former cabinet minister John Redwood and Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary.
Mr Davis sought yesterday to broaden his appeal by promising that he would choose a "shadow cabinet of all the talents" if he wins the leadership. He dismissed calls by some MPs for Mr Howard to stand down sooner rather than later to prevent the party wasting months on a leadership contest that would not be resolved until December. "I think he earned the right in a formidable [election] campaign to choose his own time," he said. There could be calls for the contest to be speeded up when Tory MPs discuss proposals to change the leadership rules tomorrow.Reuse content