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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 October 2005, 17:42 GMT 18:42 UK
Tory race still on a knife edge
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

Ken Clarke is out - again - and the Conservative leadership race has been thrown even wider open.

Liam Fox, Ken Clarke and David Cameron, from left to right, at Conservative Party conference
Cameron and Fox made ground in contest
As widely predicted, young moderniser David Cameron has shot up the running to start snapping at David Davis' heels, while Liam Fox has beaten Mr Clarke to go through to Thursday's second round.

Mr Davis may have topped the poll of MPs, but he failed to win even the 65 votes he claimed were publicly declared for him let alone the 80 some of his supporters were hinting at.

And that could prove yet another serious setback for the man who started this race as the favourite - a title now swinging firmly towards Mr Cameron.

Dr Fox, meanwhile, has lived up to his reputation as a dark horse and, despite his coming third, his supporters will now claim he is better placed to take on Mr Cameron than Mr Davis is.

The Davis camp, on the other hand, will insist their man is the only candidate from the right of the party who can beat Mr Cameron - the man most likely to win over a large proportion of those Tory MPs who voted for left wing favourite Mr Clarke.

Rival teams

They insist Davis's true level of support was masked by tactical voting aimed at defeating Mr Clarke, with potential Davis supporters voting Fox or even Cameron to keep the ex-chancellor out of the running.

The big hope in the Davis camp is that these tactical voters will fall back in line in time for the crucial second ballot on Thursday.

Whether that holds water or not, there can be little doubt that, whoever got the most votes, Mr Davis was the loser and Mr Cameron the winner in this first ballot.

David Davis
Davis failed to win even declared votes
There will now be 48 hours of frantic campaigning as the rival teams attempt to maximise their support before Thursday's second ballot.

Many Tory MPs now believe that Mr Cameron is the man with the momentum and is virtually certain to go through in that second round of voting.

Knife edge

The question amongst Tory MPs now is whether they will choose Mr Davis or Dr Fox as the man to challenge Mr Cameron in the final poll of the party's 300,000 members.

The great worry for Mr Davis is that, as the clear favourite at the start of the contest, there was only ever one way to go and that was down - and that appears to be what is happening.

His campaign bosses will hope to swing a few of Mr Clarke's voters over to their side, along with the majority of Dr Fox's in Thursday's second ballot.

The Fox team, on the other hand, will have the task of persuading Davis supporters that their man is now failing and it is time for them to back another horse.

And there is still the inherent danger of tactical voting to factor in to the equation as some MPs consider voting to stop a particular candidate rather than voting simply for the man they actually support.

This knife-edge contest could throw up a few more surprises yet.


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