Last week David Cameron (unchanged this week) emerged as the favourite to become the next Tory leader and nothing has changed since then. Three opinion polls (1, 2 and 3) all confirmed that Mr Cameron had transformed the landscape of the contest because of his campaign launch and Blackpool speech. At Wednesday's '92 hustings he put in a solid performance and reassured some Eurosceptic MPs with a commitment to leave the EPP. His week has, of course, been dogged by very intrusive questions about whether or not he used illegal drugs when at university. David Davis - like most observers - has said that past use doesn't matter unless it was "recent". Much more important - in my opinion - is David Cameron's support for a harm reduction approach to drugs. On its own it's not enough to kill his campaign; but it could really hurt it.
David Davis (-1) steadied his parliamentary ship at the '92 meeting but despite talk of a relaunch he has yet to shows any sign of urgency or campaign intensity. One insider told me that his campaign HQ is a "disorganised and rudderless operation". The uninspirational safety-first campaign of the long pre-Blackpool period should have been publicly dumped and replaced with a passionate 'fighting for Britain's battlers campaign'. I wonder if the Davis campaign is caught in the headlights of the Cameron Phenomenon? They're still complaining about the way the press over-egged DC's Blackpool speech and tore their candidate's speech apart. Their sense of unfairness will only have been encouraged by Peter Oborne's latest Spectator column. Mr Oborne (a Clarke supporter) suggests ITN-led media manipulation of events in Blackpool. He writes:
"David Cameron, the new favourite to become Tory leader, is to all intents and purposes a fiction. He is the author of a brilliant speech which never really happened, a man of dazzling talents that he does not possess. The real Cameron, of course, staggers on under the burden of artifice and interpretation. How well he lives with this weird new identity will determine the result next week and, who knows, maybe the election in four years’ time."
Peter Oborne's candidate of choice - Ken Clarke (-1) - won the backing of Sir Malcolm Rifkind but fell further behind David Cameron (in the list of parliamentary endorsements). This happened despite a "charming" performance in front of the '92. His Machiavellian references to not ever having used cocaine - "If it is of any interest, I haven't taken cocaine" - were clearly designed to dislodge Cameron supporters from the Shadow Education Secretary's camp. They're unlikely to save his campaign, however, and I expect he'll be defeated next week - on either Tuesday or Thursday - and he'll encourage his backers to join the Cameron bandwagon.
Mr Clarke is in a tough fight to beat Liam Fox (+1) in Tuesday's first round of voting. Dr Fox picked up six new supporters during a week spent quietly courting undecided MPs. Dr Fox's campaign is regularly caricatured as right-wing. That probably reflects his neocon positions on Iraq, abortion, the EPP and the family. But there is more to his candidacy than that. His 'extra mile compassion' policies on human rights, mental illness and domestic violence should rebut the media's easy caricatures. Overtaking Ken Clarke ahead of Tuesday's first round vote must now be his top tactical priority. Dr Fox is unlikely to stop the race becoming a 'Davis vs Cameron' final round but he could emerge as the kingmaker if he performs well.
PS Apologies that this post is 36 hours late!