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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 October 2005, 14:53 GMT 15:53 UK
Hopefuls questioned by Tory women
Theresa May, Liam Fox and David Cameron at the Tory conference
Tory MPs will vote next Tuesday
The four Conservative leadership candidates have been grilled by MPs' spouses and Tory women at a hustings in the House of Commons.

David Cameron, David Davis, Ken Clarke and Liam Fox each had 15 minutes before the 40-year-old Contact group.

The event began shortly after the official noon close of nominations.

Tory MPs vote next Tuesday with the last candidate dropping out. The top two in a second vote, on Thursday, then go to a run-off vote of party members.

Close race

With the first round of voting approaching, the various candidates are stepping up their efforts to win backing.

Mr Cameron is the bookmakers' favourite but Mr Davis appears to have a big lead among MPs, with 66 publicly backing him.

CAMPAIGN TIMETABLE
Thursday: Nominations closed. Hustings for the Contact group of Tory spouses
Monday: Possible hustings for all Tory MPs
Tuesday: First round of voting by MPs
Thursday: Final round of voting by MPs
Early November: Tory members start voting on final two candidates
6 December: Result expected

Dr Fox's bid was boosted on Wednesday by news that about 15 right-wing Tory MPs could back him.

That would make it too close to call between him and Mr Cameron.

Mr Clarke said it was "highly unlikely" he would be knocked out in the first round - but suggested the contest was "too close to call".

Rachel Robathan, who chairs the group, said afterwards that all four candidates had shown "leadership qualities" and had "given excellent speeches outlining their vision and agenda to drive the party forward".

Ms Robathan, wife of Tory MP Andrew Robathan, said each had shown their commitment to getting women more involved in the party by addressing the meeting.

The BBC's political editor Nick Robinson said all the Tory leadership hopefuls were asked the same questions, which this time did not include any on drugs.

Drugs questions

The topic cropped up among the candidates at a hustings organised by the right-wing 92 Group on Wednesday evening.

One MP asked Ken Clarke - the first contender to appear - whether he had ever tried hard drugs.

Mr Clarke said he did not think it right for candidates to be asked to answer questions of that sort about their private lives.

But he added: "If it is of any interest to you, I haven't taken cocaine."

The reaction against the question from other MPs was apparently so strong that it was not put to other candidates.

Mark Pritchard, the MP who asked the question, denied it had been aimed at Mr Cameron, who has refused to say whether or not he smoked cannabis at university.

Mr Pritchard said: "Any politician, aspiring to become prime minister, should be prepared to say how their own exposure to drugs, or lack of it, will impact on their government's drugs policy."

Right-wingers' verdict

Later, Mr Cameron was asked only what his policy on drugs would be, saying he thought it vital to improve education and treatment in the battle against illegal drugs.

Pressed on his earlier support for downgrading cannabis from Class B to Class C, he argued it was important to ensure that drugs policy was "realistic".

But he suggested he might reconsider the move because the cannabis available now was much stronger.

Some MPs believe drugs is an issue which will count in the leadership campaign.

After Wednesday's hustings, 21 right-wing MPs from the traditionalist Cornerstone Group met to decide who to support.

One of the group's leading MPs, Edward Leigh, said: "I think the majority of them will vote for Dr Fox, firstly because he appears to accept all the Cornerstone agenda and secondly because they would like to see Mr Clarke thrown out of the balloon."

But another MP from the group, Douglas Carswell, instead said he was backing Mr Cameron.




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