Frankly, the elimination of Ken Clarke, the most popular and experienced of the four candidates did not come as a total shock. For all the headway he appeared to make during the late summer and at the party conference in Blackpool, Mr Clarke was unable to shed his Europhile image and suffered from the failure to appeal to the younger generation of MPs. And in the end his age also told against him. Only one of the newly elected MPs publicly endorsed Mr Clarke and, notwithstanding his barnstorming speech in Blackpool, he has obviously been over-burdened and overwhelmed by his past. As Tim Yeo said, however, Mr Clarke's elimination is a tragedy for Mr Clarke and the Conservative Party.
There will be some concern among the wider party membership that they will be unable to express their opinion on Mr Clarke's candidacy. Mr Clarke has contended all along that there would be a peasants' revolt of the membership if he were not on the final ballot. The immediate reaction of ordinary voters, beyond the Tory party, must be that the Tories have shot themselves in the foot again. Mr Clarke's popularity, however, as measured by opinion polls was probably overstated.
But the beneficiaries of Mr Clarke's elimination are the outsider, Liam Fox, and the new favourite, David Cameron, who both go into tomorrow's second ballot with a spring in their step. Dr Fox, with his 42 votes in yesterday's parliamentary ballot poses a potential, but not yet a fatal, threat to David Davis.
There has been much concern at the extent to which Mr Davis would be able to hold on to his much-advertised 66 publicly declared supporters. In the event Mr Davis has fared well enough to retain first place but, with only six votes more than Mr Cameron, he has clearly lost much of his initial momentum. There will now be an almighty tussle between both the Fox and Davis camps, and the Fox camp will no doubt approach every one of Mr Davis's 62 voters before tomorrow. As things stand, it would only take a dozen Davis switchers to put Dr Fox into the final ballot of party members. Dr Fox has a simple message to any MP unconvinced that Mr Cameron is the salvation of the Tory party. He will try to suggest that he is better placed than Mr Davis to beat Mr Cameron in the membership ballot. Certainly polls suggest that, in a run-off between Mr Cameron and Mr Davis, Mr Cameron would storm to victory.
The simple arithmetic makes it certain that David Cameron, with his 56 votes - far more than his officially published tally of supporters - is the only one of the three remaining candidates who can now guarantee, absolutely, that he will be one of the two to go to the membership after tomorrow's second ballot. Mr Cameron is the firm favourite and has clearly managed to lay to rest the doubts raised in some sections of the media about his refusal to answer questions about drug use when he was at university. To be only six votes behind Mr Davis at this stage is a remarkable achievement and there is every likelihood that he will clean up the bulk of the 38 votes garnered by Mr Clarke.
It is quite possible, however, that a few of Mr Davis's voters could have sought, tactically, to try to keep Mr Clarke in the race and might yet return to honour their original pledges.
The shape of the new Conservative Party can just be discerned. This leadership election probably marks the final break with the past. A new generation of politicians is taking over and the shadow of the Major and Thatcher years has been lifted this week. Even though Dr Fox - and even Mr Davis - will seek to remind some on the hard right of their Thatcherite roots, for vote-winning purposes tomorrow, they will both be as anxious as Mr Cameron to demonstrate a generational change.
Whoever wins the contest in the country in early December will have no one in the Shadow Cabinet who served as a member of theThatcher cabinets - unless, of course Mr Clarke finally decides that he is prepared to roll up his sleeves.
William Hague is rumoured to be contemplating a return and would be the only other potential member of the Shadow Cabinet with cabinet experience. If Mr Hague expresses a public preference for one of the candidates he - rather than Baroness Thatcher - will have a potentially decisive influence on the course of events over the next few weeks.
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