Supporters of Michael Portillo, Secretary of State for Employment, still believe their undeclared candidate will take over as Conservative leader, either in a second ballot next month or after the next general election.
Tory MPs who back Mr Portillo were keen to explain yesterday why the setback of John Redwood's challenge was only minor. The Thatcherite views of Mr Portillo and Mr Redwood are close, although personal relations between them are not.
Mr Portillo's supporters insisted there was no deal struck between the two at their meeting on Monday, but they also denied that they were running a "Stop Redwood" campaign. They claim that Mr Redwood's campaign is "going to hit a ceiling" today. They are planning for two different scenarios, depending on whether or not John Major is forced to resign after the first ballot.
If Mr Major wins: Mr Portillo's supporters accept that Mr Redwood's standing on the right wing of the Tory party will have risen, but they say that Mr Portillo can play the "loyalty card". According to them, he would argue: "We need to reshape the party properly and we can't do that in government."
They privately believe that the party would lose the next general election under Mr Major and say Mr Portillo would then be the only credible leader in opposition.
If there is a second ballot: his supporters argue it will be because of abstentions by supporters of the "real" candidates, Mr Portillo and Michael Heseltine, rather than positive votes for Mr Redwood. They say Mr Portillo would enter the contest, against Mr Redwood and Mr Heseltine and possibly other candidates on the left of the party. They accept that there is a danger that Mr Portillo would look lame, trailing in the wake of the more courageous Mr Redwood, but they claim Mr Redwood has only been able to launch his challenge because Mr Portillo has "blazed the trail".
They expect the election to go to a third ballot, with the function of an inconclusive second ballot being to decide whether Mr Redwood or Mr Portillo should be the candidate of the right. "Now that Redwood has got only the loonies, it is open for the first time for Portillo to come in as the healing candidate," one of Mr Portillo's supporters said yesterday.
Another supporter said Mr Portillo could not enter the leadership contest in the first round, even if he wanted to, because "we are not Mossad - our cell structure is not that good".
But Mr Portillo has the best-organised band of supporters in the Conservative Party outside Parliament. An orchestrated phone-in initially swamped the Sun's telephone poll: on Monday Mr Portillo, on 45 per cent, was running just behind Mr Major on 46 per cent on the 10p-a-call "Who will make the best PM?" poll. But in yesterday's Sun Mr Redwood - boosted by the publicity of his campaign launch - had overtaken him, on 24 per cent to 18 per cent, with Mr Major ahead on 54 per cent.
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