Michael Brown: The outcome of this race is now much less certain

Cameron or Clarke could sweep up the bulk of the 80 or so undeclared MPs
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If this was nothing more than a public speaking competition,David Cameron, Ken Clarke - and the rank outsider Sir Malcolm Rifkind - would all beat Mr Davis. And if Mr Davis becomes party leader, there will need to be a serious attempt to school him in the basic arts of rousing an audience. This inability to do so is not necessarily an automatic disqualification to win a leadership contest, but it increases the pressure on Mr Davis. Margaret Thatcher was no conference orator when she first succeeded Ted Heath. By the 1980s, she was one of the best in the business. But recent memories of leaders who have made poor conference speeches lead us back to the ill-fated Iain Duncan Smith experience.

And the peculiar circumstances of this beauty parade means that more store than usual is set by the audience reception. The ghost of Tory conferences past stalks the Winter Gardens in Blackpool this week. In particular, memories are being evoked of the historic Tory conference in Blackpool in 1963 when the gathering similarly became a beauty parade between the leading contenders, Rab Butler, Lord Home, and Lord Hailsham, following the resignation of the Tory prime minister, Harold Macmillan. On that occasion, Rab Butler was the front-runner - but his speech bombed and the outsider, Lord Home, emerged, by osmosis, through the "customary processes" - otherwise known as the magic circle. That was before even MPs, let alone the party membership, had a vote.

While the Davis speech touched all the right traditional Tory buttons - terrorism, crime, lower taxes, better public services - and will therefore appeal to many sections of the party faithful, there was a "tick box" element to the strategy. Mr Davis, however, still has a large block of 66 MPs who are publicly committed to his candidacy - and he will still be the favourite to gain one of the two places in the final run-off among party members following the eliminatory series of parliamentary ballots. But the terms of trade have changed. Can all those 66 MPs be relied upon, in the secrecy of the ballot, to stick with Mr Davis? Three months ago, the question was whether there was anyone who could beat Mr Davis. Now Mr Davis has to work out if he can beat either David Cameron or, more probably, Kenneth Clarke in the full membership ballot.

Mr Davis will, however, be aided by the inevitable parliamentary manoeuvrings in the corridors of Westminster next week. Regardless of Mr Clarke's growing popularity among the party faithful, there remains a determination among many MPs to vote, tactically, for any candidate in order to stop him getting into the final round. This means Liam Fox is also not yet to be written out of the script and, from the tone of his populist speech yesterday, he is seeking to monopolise support from the traditional eurosceptic right. Sir Malcolm Rifkind's tent will fold before nominations are closed - I spied his campaign manager, Crispin Blunt, at the Cameron campaign party.

The conference clearly wants Mr Clarke, and probably even Mr Cameron, alongside Mr Davis, on the ballot paper and I detect the possibility of a serious peasants' revolt by party members if there is a repeat of the 2001 contest when, by one vote, Michael Portillo was excluded from the full membership ballot.

John Strafford, leader of the Conservative campaign for party democracy, says that, according to the rules by which the present race is taking place, it is within the gift of Sir Michael Spicer, chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, in consultation with his executive committee, to allow more than two names to be submitted to the full party membership. Mr Strafford claims the constitutional requirement is for the parliamentary party to submit a "minimum" of two candidates to the membership for their approval - implying more if Sir Michael and his colleagues agree.

There was once a certainty that Mr Davis would automatically top the parliamentary poll. Now, while I would be surprised if he was not in the final shortlist of two, the awful truth has to be faced that either Cameron or Clarke could sweep up the bulk of the currently undeclared 80 or so MPs. One uncommitted MP told The Independent before Mr Davis's speech "the next 20 minutes will determine my vote". By the end, Mr Davis had lost the vote. And yet Mr Davis's strength is his ability to absorb the punches. He is by nature a marathon man rather than a sprinter.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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