The Sketch: Simon Carr

Portillo beware. No one enjoys the scent of blood more than a Tory MP
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The Independent Online

There was a joke in the House yesterday. Robin Cook was standing in for John Prescott who was absent in China otherwise he would have been standing in for Tony Blair who was absent in England. Robin Cook was Prime Minister for half an hour: funny, or what? Oh all right, suit yourselves.

Robin Cook made a joke in the House and everyone laughed. He said the leadership election for the Tory party had been likened to Big Brother. "That isn't fair," he said. "To Big Brother. At least when they have a vote in Big Brother someone gets kicked off." Prolonged laughter. You remember, say you do, the bottom two leadership candidates tied, the day before yesterday, so the first ballot will be repeated today with all the candidates in place and if there's another tie then both the bottom two will drop off together? Yes, you had to know that to get the joke.

Nobody knows what's going on in the Tory leadership. It's like life. Except worse. It has all the complexity of a passionate, polygamous marriage with angry wives, cowering heirs, an anxious court searching, searching, searching for the main chance. At least if we knew what the main chance was we'd know how most people would vote, but even that isn't clear.

The questions are intricate. Will the vote for the bottom two candidates collapse today? Where will their supporters go? Will Michael Portillo's vote hold up? And why would it? How many undeclared supporters of Ken Clarke are out there, skimming along under the surface? Who voted for Michael Ancram and why hadn't they taken their medication? If Iain Duncan Smith is the answer, what's the question?

The brilliant numbers man for the BBC, Jonathan Isaby, had Michael Portillo down for 58 votes in the first round. He had seasonally adjusted the figures down to 53, a hunch, allowing for additional, high-summer duplicity. Portillo did even worse than that with just 49 votes. The quarterdeck of their campaign is bitterly disappointed.

Where did the missing nine votes go? The first thing to say is that nobody knows. But Michael Ancram did about nine votes better than Isaby had predicted. Nine votes appeared at the last minute. Untraceably. Unfathomably. You don't vote for Michael Ancram just to save his face. Those nine may have been Portillistas voting for Ancram to knock Davis out of the running: Davis's supporters (all but, say, four of them) would revert to Portillo and/or Duncan Smith and thereby keep Clarke out of the final vote.

It was a daring tactical vote, if that's what it was. Too daring, in the event. It didn't work – Davis is still in the running. And more importantly, it has also taken all the momentum out of their master's campaign. He's not a clear winner any more. He's vulnerable. He's (pause for Tory shudder of pleasure, excitement, hunger) wounded.

Blood is the great Tory intoxicant. No one would be more greatly humiliated by defeat than Mr Portillo, and no one less able to withstand the consequences. That makes it irresistible to a significant portion of a certain percentage of the 166 voters voting today.

If this tactical theory is correct (and there are others, goodness knows there are others) Ancram's vote will collapse. It is possible he will vote for himself. Portillo will be the sole beneficiary of the phantom tacticians returning to the fold. But in the meantime, others will have deceitfully slipped away.

It's glorious. There is no better time to be a Tory.