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Monday, 16 July, 2001, 23:50 GMT 00:50 UK
Tortuous Tory campaign goes to wire
Would-be Tory leaders Iain Duncan Smith, Kenneth Clarke and Michael Portillo
Bidding for the final face off
Nick Assinder

It's been a torturous process, but Tory MPs are finally set to select the two candidates who will battle it out for the leadership of the party.

With only hours to go before the final backbench ballot, few in Westminster were ready to predict whether Michael Portillo, Iain Duncan Smith or Kenneth Clarke would be kicked out of the contest.

Tory leadership contender Michael Portillo
Portillo suffered setbacks
Some were even painting a nightmare scenario that there might be a tie for second place - sparking yet another re-run.

The only thing that seemed certain was that the contest was going to be extraordinarily tight.

Some MPs were claiming that each of the three candidates had around 50 of the 166 possible votes, leaving only a handful either undeclared or undecided.

Tactical vote

Few, however, believe there is a genuine "don't know" faction still on the backbenches.

Even the last minute setbacks for Mr Portillo's campaign and boosts for the other two candidates are unlikely to have shifted large number of Tory MPs' opinions.

Many of them decided who they were going to vote for from the very day the contest was called, if not before.

Some decided they would have to vote tactically to stop their most hated candidate.

Former Tory leadership contender Michael Ancram
Ancram was defeated
There was, for example, great speculation that Michael Ancram was the stop-Clarke candidate and so may have picked up many votes as a result.

Then, of course, there was a large number who simple refused to tell anyone how they were going to vote, or lied.

It is a tradition in these things that you tell everybody you are going to support them in hope of future preferment from the eventual winner.

Concentrating minds

But, ever since the first round of the MPs' ballot ended in a draw for third place and there had to be a re-run, things started to pan out and much of the shenanigans stopped.

Once both Michael Ancram was defeated and David Davis pulled out, minds were concentrated.

The trouble for the Tory party now is that it appears split three ways between the Thatcherite right - Mr Duncan Smith, the old, pro-euro left - Kenneth Clarke, and the "new right" - Michael Portillo.

For some, this is a healthy and democratic battle for the soul and future direction of their party. Others believe it shows continuing disunity.

And the proper battle has not yet even started.

That will be between the two remaining candidates and it will be up to all 300,000 party members to decide the outcome.

The campaigning will go on in earnest throughout the summer - but it will not be until 12 September, just before the Tory party conference, that the winner will be known.

And only then will we discover whether that victor is genuinely capable of uniting the party.

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